ANIMETAL USA – Saturday Morning Smackdown

By Carl Begai

Ten years ago, if you’d told Obsession vocalist Michael Vescera he’d be in a band with Impellitteri guitarist Chris Impellitteri, ex-Whitesnake / ex-Ozzy Osbourne bassist Rudy Sarzo, and Judas Priest drummer Scott Travis, he likely wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility. With a career spanning 25 years that includes albums and tours with Loudness, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Helloween guitarist Roland Grapow, working with a line-up of all-star musicians would probably be viewed by Vescera as par for the course provided the planets aligned in his favour. Had you told him that he’d do so looking like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon, he would have laughed in your face. And yet, these days Vescera finds himself fronting just such a band and having a truckload of fun doing so.

“When I was younger I wanted to be a member of KISS,” he laughs, “and now I’m at least getting to play dress-up for the stage.”

Animetal USA owes its existence to a concept established in Japan well over a decade ago. The original Animetal – fronted by Anthem vocalist Eizo Sakamoto and ex-Volcano guitarist She-ja – was launched in 1996, taking famous Japanese anime theme songs dating back to the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and turning them into metal anthems. Their debut album, Animetal Marathon, went on to sell 300,000 units in Japan. Animetal released seven albums along with several compilations before going on indefinite hiatus in 2006, and according to Japan-based Area51 guitarist Yoichiro Ishino the band received more attention from the anime scene than metal fans. As a result, Animetal charted several times, even hitting the Top 10.

“We appreciate the legacy of the original Animetal and what they accomplished,” says Vescera, well aware of the origin story. “We’re really just looking forward to the future with Animetal USA and hoping to bring it to the rest of the world, not just Japan. In most of the press we did in Japan, they truly appreciate us bringing Japanese culture and music to rest of the world. We’re all hoping for a long run with this.”

From what Vescera says of Animetal USA’s appearance on the Japanese scene, fans of the original Animetal have fully embraced the new incarnation of the band.

“We were over in Japan doing promo and the album came out two days before we played the Loud Park festival, and itwas insane. We were the first band to go on, and I was told we had something like 11,000 people there at 10:30 in the morning, which is some kind of record. The crowd went crazy, they sang all the choruses… we were shocked by the response. I think we sold something like 500 CDs that day at the festival. It was nuts.”

“It’s great,” Vescera adds. “I mean, I’ll be honest, it beats playing to a club of 200 or 300 people. Being able to play live at all is cool, but to have the opportunity to do something at this level again is amazing.”

As for how Vescera was singled out for the job, a previous project made him an obvious choice for the people in charge of the Animetal franchise.

“The label contacted me over a year-and-a-half ago to do a guest vocal on a tribute album to a band called Siam Shade. Sebastian Bach was on it, so was Eric Martin from Mr. Big, John Corabi, Mark Slaughter… guys that are popular in Japan. I sang on one song (‘Get A Life’) and Sony Japan loved it. I guess that was the song that took off and helped the record sell a shitload of copies, and as a result they wanted to do something with me. They had a bunch of ideas for a project, and after getting me on board they went to Rudy, then they approached Chris and Scott.”

“The way they originally approached me with it and what it actually became are a little different (laughs). The extent they went to with it was crazy. I was blown away when they brought in the full costumes; they spent a fortune on these things. It’s all really top notch. And the thing about it is we’re not trying to be KISS, we’re doing the anime superhero thing. Everybody in the band really loves the whole idea of Animetal USA. It makes us look good (laughs).”

It also takes balls the size of a house to risk being stamped as sellouts thanks to the band’s cartoon image, especially given the respective and respected histories of each Animetal USA band member.

“Exactly. The way we look at it now is that if we’re going to look somewhat ridiculous, let’s go out there and be completely ridiculous (laughs). And for better or worse people are talking about us. The music delivers, though, so we’ve never been worried about that aspect of it. We think of Animetal USA as more of a Broadway show, with the theatrics and all that. It is what it is, and we’re going to make it as ridiculous as we can, but also as cool as possible.”

“Ridiculous” is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Vescera’s experience fronting Loudness from ’89 – ’91 gave him valuable insight into Japanese culture.

“It helps a bit,” he says of his Loudness-acquired viewpoint. “The Japanese have the whole Manga culture, the cartoons and the comic books, and it’s not like in North America or Europe. A lot of that stuff in Japan is tailored to adults, so they never really outgrow it. I understood that going in to do this because I was so exposed to the Japanese culture, and that was a big help, actually. It’s shocking how huge anime is in Japan. There are comic stores that have three or four floors of Manga books, and they’re usually mobbed with people.”

Scott Travis’ involvement in the project is particularly surprising given his day job with Judas Priest…

“I’d never heard of him before this,” Vescera laughs, deadpanning. “Scott was interested in the project because he wasn’t doing anything with Priest at that time. When we approached him, he was looking to do something in the future because there was no telling what their schedule was going to be like. He’s out with Priest now, of course, so Jon Dette (Killing Machine / ex-Slayer) has been sitting in for him, but this really wasn’t a hard sell on any of us. As I said, we were all shocked by the extent of the costumes and the make-up, but the Japanese research this stuff and they know if it’s going to work or not in that market.”

Whether or not Travis will continue with Animetal USA is up in the air given his commitments to Judas Priest, who show no sign of slowing down despite the ongoing talk of a final album and tour.

“We’re not sure about Scott because of his commitments to Priest. We may have to have Jon Dette do this next record with us. Scott is still involved and he still wants to be involved; it’s just impossible for him right now. He’s a big part of Animetal USA, but the Priest thing has just taken off. I’m really happy for him. It’s funny because my kids were watching American Idol and I was in kitchen or something, and I heard ‘You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’’ I was thinking ‘Is that Priest on TV?!’ I thought it was a commercial or something. I go in the other room and it was ‘Holy shit! There’s our drummer!’ (laughs). It was awesome.”

Unlike all-star projects assembled by well-meaning label people, Animetal USA wasn’t pieced together via the internet and made to look like a band. According to Vescera there was plenty of personal interaction with Impellitteri, Sarzo and Travis during the making of the album.

“We did it both ways. With me living in Nashville we had to do some things over the phone and the internet, but we did get together and tried to make the album as a band. I’m waiting for the details, but I’m due to fly out to L.A. to work with Chris on pre-production for the next one. We’ve picked the songs we’re going to do; it’s just a matter of arranging them. We want this to be a real band. We like each other and we get along, and we kill live, so it’s all good.”

Keeping in mind that Animetal USA is based on an existing model with a huge catalogue, the songs featured on the debut were metalized years before Vescera and his bandmates came into the picture. It was a question choosing which tracks to record, giving the band a signature sound, and rewriting the lyrics in English.

“We went back and forth with the label on that,” Vescera says of choosing the songs to be recorded. “They delivered a bunch of songs that they liked and we decided which ones we were going to do. Marty Friedman (ex-Megadeth) actually arranged a lot of the songs on the album. He lives in Japan, he understands the culture, he’s into the anime, so he was involved quite a bit in arranging the original demos. When Chris got the tracks we made our own arrangements from Marty’s original work.”

“I wrote the lyrics. When they first gave me the demos I worked from the translations of the original Japanese text and came up with some cool rock lyrics that kept the meaning of the song. The label wasn’t convinced and told me the lyrics had to be even closer to the originals. I had to go back and rewrite everything. So, they told me which Japanese words had specific meanings and therefore had to stay in the English version of the song. Then we had to go through publishing to get approval because the original songs are huge in Japan.”

Meaning that Vescera was resigned to penning lyrics that he normally wouldn’t sing. All in the name of cartoon culture.

“It’s a little funny. People have asked me about that before and I tell them it’s the first time I’ve ever written lyrics about a high school baseball player (laughs). It is a little odd, especially because I come from doing darker stuff like the new Obsession record. But, even as I’m getting that done I’m singing about a rocket punch, a battleship, black castles…”

Animetal USA also keeps alive the original Animetal tradition of inserting snippets of classic metal anthems into their song arrangements. The debut album offers up several of these surprises in the form of tidbits of Rush, Accept and Iron Maiden thrown into the mix.

“That was the label’s idea,” says Vescera. “They thought it would be a great idea and they were right; the kids go apeshit when we play that stuff. There were other bits and pieces that we wanted to put on the album, but we couldn’t get clearance on them. We actually had ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’ at the front of one song, but it just wouldn’t work so we had to pull it out. We also had a piece of ‘Paranoid’ in there but we had to pull it. There was a lot more than that, so maybe they’ll make the second record.”

A second record that, if all goes well, will see Animetal USA hit the touring circuit outside Japan. The success of the debut pretty much guarantees the follow-up will go over a storm.

“They definitely want to build this up and into the rest of the world. There’s been some talk about us doing some international anime conventions in the States, France, South America, all over the place. We wouldn’t mind touring as long as it makes sense. We were thinking about doing some of the European metal festivals next year, but we decided to hold off and let this build a little bit more. We’re actually going in to start another record. The record company wants us to do headlining shows, so we really need the material to cover it.”

Check out Part 2 of the interview with Vescera here.

All photos used with excluisve permission of Masumi Kojima and Sony Music Japan.