An Exclusive Interview With Molly Hatchet's Keyboard Wizard
by Michael Buffalo Smith
John, were you an original member of Molly Hatchet?
I am not an original member of Molly Hatchet per se', however I AM the original keyboard player. I was called in to play some keyboard parts on the "No Guts, No Glory" album in 1983, which was just after Danny Joe rejoined Molly Hatchet. There was some talk at that point of them pulling me into the band, but nothing was concrete. After the album was complete, and the band was on the road, they played here in Detroit with Sammy Hagar, at Cobo Hall. I remember going down there and waking Dave up on the bus out in front of the venue, and a few minutes later Sammy came on the bus and was trying to rouse Dave also. After the show that night, Danny Joe and Steve Holland came to my house for a little late night party, and Steve said,"Wanna be in the band? You can take MY place, I've had enough." Well, of course he didn't have to ask me twice, and after that tour, I was called to be a full-time member of Molly Hatchet, at which time we went into rehearsals for a new album, "The Deed is Done". I also must add that on the first couple MH albums, session man Jai Winding played keys on a few tracks, but was not in the band.
What was it like when you first joined the band?
When I first joined the band, it was so overwhelming! The crowds were bigger, the venues were bigger, we were treated like kings. I felt like, "Am I really getting paid for this? " It was really like a nonstop vacation with all expenses paid, and spending money to boot! Kind of like a rolling party with your friends. The only real downside was having to leave my family at home, although there were times they could join us on the road. It was hard not to go home and say, "I did this and this, and went here and there" because I didn't want them to feel left out, so I had to supress some of that ; "Yeah, it was pretty rough out there! Pretty much stayed in my room with the door locked." That kind of thing. But the band really made me feel like part of the family right from the git-go. It was an experience I wish everyone could share at least once.
What were some of the highlights of being in the band with Danny Joe?
It was just a thrill being onstage with all my heroes, and playing behind Danny Joe. He had something that few front-men have. We did some videos back then that were a real kick. It was kind of funny to see these video girls come in in the morning, and you wouldn't recognize them, they all looked like they just crawled out of bed, but as soon as the makeup people got through with them, BAM!, Instant Supermodels! The transformation was incredible. It was a lot of fun getting to act a little in the videos, but unfortunately, they never got much, if any, airplay, and MTV pretty much refused to play them. They considered us a "classic" act. But all in all it was an enlightening experience. Traveling in a luxury tour bus was also very cool, because as a teenager, I was into custom vans, and did some custom painting, so the bus was like an extension of that.
At times we could be a hell-raising band, some members more than others. I think that would have to fall into Danny and Dave?s lap. They were the hardcore party men, the one's that would take the most risks, and hang with the riskiest of people. Bruce was into health and bodybuilding, and kind of lived in his own bubble. He would prepare all his own food, and rarely ate in a resturant with the band, and only drank bottled water. There was a time in Iowa , at a ballroom, that Bruce and Danny got into a fistfight offstage, right before the encore. I still have no idea what it was about, but soon after, they settled their dispute. Incidents like that were not unusual, but the band had pretty much settled down by the time I joined. Of course, we have always had a strong biker following, so it was not unusual to see the Hells Angels, Outlaws, Banditos, or any other bike club at our shows and occasionally onstage with us. They have been with us from the beginning, all over the world, and we welcome them wherever we go.
Everyone in the band, at one time or another, has partied with the best of them, and rarely passed on an invitation to join-in.
Tell me about Danny Joe Brown.
Danny Joe and I used to room together frequently. First off, I have to say, if it wasn't for Danny, I wouldn't have been in Molly Hatchet. He is very generous, very kind, and would give anyone the shirt off his back. He was the most non-materialistic person in the band, and pretty much lived for the moment. He frequently read the Bible, and treated everyone that came his way with respect. He has a good-ol-boy personna thats almost Elvis-like. He was a "yes Ma'am, yes sir" kind of guy, that appealed to both young and old. He would have made a great actor. He definately had an aura, and when he entered a room he commanded attention. The women wanted him and the men wanted to be like him. He is a very likeable guy, but his image created problems for him. People saw him drink onstage, so they wanted to drink with him, and bring him liquor as gifts, and buy him drinks, and I think it just got away from him. Now he's having some serious health issues as a result, and I KNOW, it wasn't part of the plan, but its something we all have to face, and learn from it.
Back in the 80's, we had this bus driver by the name of Joe "Bear" MacIntire. He looked JUST LIKE Willie Nelson, and everywhere we went, people thought he was. He even had the braids, the beard, the whole nine yards, and I think he even played off that a little. Anyway, we were on our way from Georgia up to New Jersey, I think, and everyone was asleep on the bus, When Joe Bear stopped at a truck stop for fuel and coffee. Danny usually had a habit of calling his wife whenever we stopped, and for some reason he woke up and got off the bus to find a pay phone. Joe Bear was in the truck stop and unaware that Danny was off the bus calling home from a payphone across the parking lot. After paying for the fuel, Joe hopped in the bus and resumed the trip, unknowing that Danny was gone. In the meantime, Danny finished his call and started back to the bus realizing it had left. Now you have to picture this: here's a guy with nothing on but a pair of shorts, no ID, no money, except the phone change, with a little Jim Beam buzz going, trying to explain to people that he's Molly Hatchets singer, and needs to get to New Jersey. (Yeah, right, buddy, and I'm Frank Sinatra!) Meanwhile, the next day we arrive at our destination, when everyone realizes, "Where's Danny?" Suddenly out of nowhere, Danny appears with a big grin. He had borrowed a shirt from a trucker, called our manager at home, who got him a flight, had a State Trooper rush him to the airport, and actually BEAT US to New Jersey! So ends the saga of the missing vocalist!
How is Danny doing now?
I haven't talked to Danny since around Christmas time, and I'm really not sure how he's doing at this point.
Tell us about big Dave Hlubek, and the other original members.
Dave was the showman. He was the spark that would turn a lead into a flash-fire. Along with Danny, I think he brought a certain "toughness" to the band, and a look that defined southern rock. Together, they were unstoppable. Dave also had a great gift for doing interviews laced with wit, sarcasm, and pride. Later on, though ,I sensed a certain competition within the band for the "top" spot, that I think created a certain edge.
Duane Roland was the unsung hero, and really was more of a family guy, but you couldn't tell by looking. He was less flashy, but more precision, and did a lot of his leads in one take, in the studio. I had the pleasure of staying at Duane?s house in Jacksonville, when I first joined the band. He had a bad hip, which he ended up having replaced, and I think it prevented him from running around onstage too much.
Bruce Crump, also very family-oriented, had a style all his own, and would blow your mind onstage with some new drum-fills he would throw in. A great drummer, and a great guy. Very disciplined in his diet and health issues.
Riff West was the bass player when I came into the band. Riff and I were very close, and pretty much hung out together, later to be joined by Bobby Ingram. We dubbed ourselves the "3 Amigos," because the three of us were the ones that would go exploring in every city, and pretty much were the most compatable. We partied a little lighter than the rest, and would be off to find another adventure at every turn. The rest of the band would be sleeping off hangovers or nights on the town, but we didn't realize at the time, that they had already DONE what we were doing many times over, so they opted to relax. Riff was a super guy and organizes many charitable events for animals and the Humane Society, as well as the Jammin for DJB benefit. We still keep in contact occasionally.
Did you work with Jimmy Farrar?
I never had the chance to meet Jimmy Farrar, or even hear him live. We were busy with the Danny Joe Brown Band during that period, of which Bobby and myself were members. However I DO own "Beatin the Odds" and "Take No Prisoners," and Jimmy, YOU ROCK!!
What are your favorite Molly Hatchet records?
My favorite Hatchet records actually are the first of each lineup. I love the first album with "Dreams," and I prefer "Devils Canyon" over the last two. I thought the music was more diverse, the songwriting more hook-ladin, and I liked the production better. A close second would be "Lightning Strikes Twice." Now for my least favorite, "Double Trouble Live," not due to the playing, because the playing SMOKED, but the production didn't. It was produced by our former manager, at his home, who really had no business producing such an important record, our last record with Epic. The band did such a great job, only to be ruined by bad production and a God-awful jacket.
Of course, this is just my opinion. The photo's did not capture what the band was about,in any way shape or form. However, we are about to change all that, with our NEW AND IMPROVED live album coming out this year. I have not heard any final mixes yet, but I DID hear it, the night we played it afterwards, and it ripped!
What are your favorite songs to perform live?
Playing live is always the biggest thrill of being with the band, and I would have to say that "Dreams" is my all time favorite to play live, along with "Fall of the Peacemaker," "The Journey," "Tatanka," and "Devil's Canyon."
Any comments on the "old Hatchet vs new Hatchet" thing?
Over the last few years there has been a lot of controversy over the "old band" vs. the "new band". I was fortunate enough to be a part of both versions, and I have to say that I had an equally great time in both bands. When I joined the original band, everything was new and exciting, and I was playing with people that were my musical heroes, that I had seen in concert many times before I ever met them. To be a part of that was a gift that can't be compared. That band started it all, wrote the hits that went platinum, and whether or not they are still on stage as a band or not, they will always be in our hearts as Molly Hatchet. The "new" version of the band, which a lot of people think just happened overnight, in fact was an evolvement of sorts,that happened over years. Members would come and go, as early as 1980, when Danny first left the band. It was never the same since.
The new version, in my opinion, has picked up where "Flirtin with Disaster" left off. It feels fresh again, the songwriting is back on track, and it is self-sufficient. The internal struggles within the band are gone, and music is now the number one priority. Bobby has singlehandedly transformed a band that had one foot in the grave, and gave it new life.
Why he chose to use the Molly Hatchet moniker, I don't know, it could have been called anything, because I don't think it sounds exactly like the other band, but maybe what the band WOULD have sounded like today. I think its a definite progression for the better. The only hurdle we haven't seemed to jump is selling records. Radio won't touch the band, and niether will MTV. The stores are slowly building stock of our latest cd's, but distibution has been minimal. I think once we overcome these obstacles, we'll be on our way, because the music speaks for itself.
Tell me about what you did between the time the original band broke up and the time you came back in.
During the time the original band split up (1990) and the new band formed, (1995), I went back to Detroit and started gigging in a local band. In 1994 I was divorced from Pam, my wife of 17 years, and was in a situation that I'm sure some of the guys out there have dealt with, called "child support". I had to get a better (nonmusical) paying job with insurance, and fell into a good job with a local furniture store, that was not only a union job, but offered an assortment of benefits. I had been with the company a couple of years when I got the call from Bobby to play on a new MH record. He said if you like it, you can go back on the road with us and be a family again. I did the record, but unfortunately my bills were overwhelming, and I couldn't go on the road and make it. I did as many shows as I could until Bobby called one day and said, "look, we gotta get someone out here to play your parts', So they brought in Tim Donovan, a fine Florida keyboardist to fill my spots on the road. Thanks Tim! In the meantime, a turn of events happened in 1999, my ex-wife awarded me custody of my kids, and house. So now I'm raising my kids and taking care of the house, and still doing the day job. However, I still play as many shows as I can, mainly throughout the summer, especially in the Mich/Ohio/Indiana areas, and wherever I'm needed elsewhere. Also I still gig locally here in Detroit to keep up the chops. I also try to do the European tours in the winter.
Speaking of Europe, the band has a great following in Germany. Tell me about that.
Germany is like our second home now, thanks to Rainer Hansel and the people at SPV. We go there every year to record and tour, and we,ve been there so much that we pretty much know our way around, especially the Hamburg area. The fans in Germany are wonderful, and some of them we take with us from show to show.
Who are your favorite bands to tour or share a bill with?
We've done shows with so many, its hard to pick a favorite, but 38 Special is always fun, Nazareth, Blue Oyster Cult, Saxon, and of course the great Charlie Daniels Band! No matter who we play with, we always have a great time, the more the merrier.
I hear you have a diverse taste in music. Who do you like?
People have always criticized my taste in music, but I listen to a very diverse variety of music ranging from New Age to Metal to Industrial, and everything in between. I'm also into trippy, or psychedelic music that can take me somewhere without the hassle of drug use. I like Monster Magnet a lot, and got a chance to meet Dave Wyndorf, the vocalist, on the ferry from London to France last year. I recently went to see Rob Zombie, what an awesome production. Another cool band is the Genetorturers from Tampa. I never miss their show when they come here. Another band called Down is cool, kind of Black Sabbath with a little southern rock mixed in. On a lighter note, there's a cool band called Gomez I like. The Church from Australia, Gino Vannelli, the new Raul Malo album, Dread Zeppelin is a hilarious act to catch if you can.
Tell me about Bobby Ingram, the band leader.
Bobby Ingram has a heart of gold. He is very driven to make the band a success, and is ambitious beyond anyone I know of. He knows what he wants and how to get it. As a guitar player, he ranks with the best. He can play whatever you want him to play, and then some. And he gets the tone from hell without even trying!
How did you first become interested in music?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, until the 4th grade. During that time, my parents discovered that I had a knack for singing and picking out songs on my aunts piano in her bar, so they bought an old upright piano, which I took to immediately! So when I was 6, they set me up with lessons, starting with musical theory, at the Cleveland institute of Music, under the direction of instructor Lillian Husak. My mother would take me by train to the opposite side of town for a half-hour lesson every week. This went on a few years until we moved to Lima, Ohio, where my parents grew up. I then studied piano with Don Hurless, a local jazz and classical legend. This went on until I was 18, for a total of 12 years. At that point I was tired of lessons and wanted to play to make money. I would start by playing at the Allen Co. Fair, for Porters Music store. They would pay me 25 dollars to play for a few hours to attract business to their booth. From there I landed a full time gig, playing organ music at a roller rink. That lasted 4 years, during which some nights I played piano in a Sveden House resturant. From there I hooked up with a group back in Cleveland that were on a label, called Damnation of Adam Blessing. They had broken up and were reforming a new band, and at that time were very big regionally. Then I hooked up with a Detroit-based country duo, Bob Hammond and Irene Dalton. It was my first real introduction to playing in bars, country music, and the big city. We would play in Ontario, over the bridge, for awhile then here in Detroit in some of the roughest places you could imagine. I've seen people shot, beaten, stabbed, you name it. It was a wake up call to the real world.
Then I was offered a house gig at a nicer club called Grants Lounge, and played with Kelly Hall for 8 years. During that time I went to see Molly Hatchet a few times, and became a big fan. That is when I met 38 Special, and kept in touch with Donnie Van Zant. He was going to try to get me a gig with his brother?s band, Austen Nichols, the future Johnny Van Zant Band, but thought they were really too young for me. One day he told me he heard that Danny Joe left Molly Hatchet and was starting a project, but didn't know how to reach him, so a friend of mine saw BeeJay Recording studio on the "Flirtin" album and we called it, and lo and behold, MH was in there recording with jimmy Farrar. We talked to their road manager and he told me how to get in touch with Danny, and sure enough he answered the phone. I sent him a tape and photo and was hired on the spot and had to leave for Jacksonville right away for rehearsal. I loaded up my van and drove straight through to Florida, to a parking lot, and called for someone to come lead me the rest of the way. Soon a car pulled up, and it was Bobby Ingram! He took me to Danny's mothers apartment, where I took a nap, then later we went to the rehearsal hall. I ended up being there 6 months, with no money. We had roadies that would "find" us food from the convenience store across the street. Occasionally, Danny would take us to Red Lobster. Then one day we had enough material for an album and started looking at producers. We chose Glynn Johns of the Who,Clapton and Led Zeppelin fame. All of a sudden we were in the Bahamas at Compass Point Studios doing our album and the rest is history. When the DJB band split up, I went back home and played with Kelly Hall again, until 1984, when I got the call to join Molly. In 1990, when the old version of Molly split up, I went home to play with a country band called Coalition, at the All Around Lounge, in Taylor, Michigan, where I now reside.
Do you have any side projects going on at this time?
I don't have any side projects in the works, however I am working on putting a small studio in my house and hope to record some stuff in the next year or so. I am playing locally here and there, right now as a duo with an extroardinary singer Don Burton.
Tell us about Phil and the rest of the current band.
First I have to say, that I love Phil McCormack. He is an excellent singer, entertainer, and is the perfect person to carry the torch for Danny. Anyone who knows Phil will attest, he is very funny, will talk your ear off, and would do anything for anyone. Phil kicks ass on and off stage. It is a highlight playing with the band at anytime, anywhere. Russell, Shawn, Bobby, Jerry,(whom I haven't met yet), and Tim, they're all the best there is, and I cant forget Mac, Brian and Andy, and Sean, all troopers in the highest sense, they don't come any better. What has been the biggest rush for you with the "new" band?
Playing Ceasars Palace, in Lake Tahoe, was a big thrill. That place is like the opitomy of entertainment. To see your name on that sign was unforgettable. Going to Germany and running the streets of Hamburg every year is a thrill! Meeting the bands I grew up listening to such as Ten Years After, Gregg Allman, Ted Nugent, Chuch Negron of Three Dog Night, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughn,..the list goes on and on. To share the stage with those greats is a treasure.
Thanks for your time, John!
Thanks Michael, and everyone at Gritz, and all the Hatchet fans worldwide!