Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jack Starr, an American musician, songwriter, and record producer who has just released Burning Starr’s epic metal “Souls of the Innocent”. Starr is excited about his creative vision and the musicians with whom he is performing. Rhino (Kenny Earl Edwards), formerly of Manowar, plays the drum set like thunder; Ned Meloni on bass brings his experience with UFO and Deep Purple; Alex, the relatively new twenty-nine year old singer who went from fan to performer, brings with him youthful enthusiasm and a commitment to the music. Starr himself is fascinating to watch as his hands fly up and down the guitar. Starr believes “Souls of the Innocent” is exactly where he should be on his musical journey but candidly states that this time around, things are different: a different record label, Global Rock Records (CEO/Owner, Bryan Adams), a new producer, Kevin Burns, and a new manager, Giles Lavery, who has a firm grasp on the whole metal scene. As a bonus, Starr gives instruction on how to create an epic album in only a few steps!
Interview by Maria Passannante-Derr. Photo courtesy of Jack Starr.
Maria Passannante-Derr: The video pre-release of two great recordings, “Souls of the Innocent” and “Demons Behind Me” and the subsequent release of “I Am a Sinner”, simultaneously with the album release, is a testament to your allegiance to heavy metal.
Jack Starr: Absolutely! There’s been no compromise so it’s not an album that tries to be all things to everyone. It’s definitely a heavy metal album.
MP-D: Is this a concept album or was there collaboration between the band members?
JS: It started off being a concept album; but, in retrospect, as things unfolded, I look at the whole album and I see a common thread, just not sure what that is. It has to do with survival in a hostile world. Just a year or two ago was the highlight of the COVID pandemic and there was a lot of pessimism, and this album was recorded during that time.
MP-D: What are the dynamics of Burning Starr’s creative process and to what degree are the other members of the group a part of it? The remote part does nothing for spontaneity, but, that is how musicians created and performed during COVID.
JS: We all live in close proximity to each other, so we were actually getting together, rehearsing and arranging the songs face to face. We have a singer who lives in Turin, Italy. With Alex, it was all done with file sharing, skype, facebook messenger and everything else you can think of.
MP-D: You and your band are outstanding, and your bass player brings his background with UFO and Deep Purple to the mix, is that right?
JS: The UFO connection is between our bassist, Ned Meloni, and his father-in-law, Paul Chapman, who is very revered in metal circles because of his band, UFO. Ned was recording with Paul and people like George Matin who produced the Beatles and actually worked on a UFO album. Ned has had a lengthy and very rich background in music. I would be remiss not to avail myself of all of Ned’s talent. He can write, arrange and sing great. He can play a great bass. He looks great. What more do you want out of a bass player? It’s kind of like having a Steve Harris right in your own band. It’s a pretty cool thing.
MP-D: To familiarize our readers with your background, in 1981, you founded Virgin Steele. At that time, you described your sound as heavy metal, power metal or epic metal. You also stated in an interview that “we were the first with that sound”. Why do you believe that you were the first with that sound and what are the characteristics of that sound?
JS: I should have said that we were one of the firsts or maybe we could have been the first. I don’t even really know who was first but we were definitely one of them. There were very few bands playing this style of music in 1981. We helped define that genre and some of the things which we did that encompassed that genre are now standard.
So, you want to make an epic metal album? I will give you a couple of the steps. First of all, you need a really great epic fantasy art album cover. It has to look like “Souls of the Innocent”. The last three covers we did with Ken Kelly, the great epic artist that just passed away. He did our “Stand Your Ground” album. He did our “Defiance” album cover; and, he did our wonderful “Land of the Dead” album cover (our sixth album released in 2011) and we always get compliments for the cover. Second, the songs should have some epic quality to them, maybe in the way it’s arranged or the way it’s written, maybe some time changes. It can’t be a little three minute song that gets to the chorus after twenty seconds. But that is not always bad, for example, take Judas Priest, “Living After Midnight”. It is not epic metal, just a really catchy metal song.
Back then, we had all these strange time changes and this minor key moodiness. It was music that demanded to be listened to. That’s another thing that we kind of pioneered. Did we really pioneer that? Yes, just because there weren’t a lot of people doing it. If you listen to Deep Purple doing the song, “Child in Time”, from way, way back, that’s epic metal, the way it starts off and slowly builds up. Ditto “Stairway to Heaven” because of the way it is written. When we started Virgin Steele, I wrote most of “Children of the Storm” with some help from our keyboard player, on our first album. That song is definitely epic metal with some really cool time changes. In the middle of the song it goes into a little acoustic thing and then the drums kick in real heavy. It clocks in at about 5 minutes. So maybe, even if we weren’t the first, we definitely helped write the book “Epic Power Metal”.
MP-D: In 1983, you disbanded Virgin Steele because you said you wanted more guitar. What did you mean by that?
JS: At that time, I was really enjoying guitar driven music more than music that was driven by keyboards. There are keyboard driven metal bands that are great but I wanted the guitar to stand out more. The other co-leader of the band, Dave DeFeis, wanted more keyboards and a more progressive sound. I wanted a certain percentage on each song to be progressive and another percentage to be guitar heavy. Let’s say my percentage might have been 70/30. I wanted 70% to be blood guts, heavy metal, loud screaming guitars, and 30% tasteful keyboard with really nice melodic things. Dave would have wanted it more to be more 50/50 or maybe 60%. Dave liked bands that I did not like so there is a little rub right there.
MP-D: You have said that heavy metal would be the direction for the rest of your life and you seem to have lived that out. Where is “Souls of the Innocent” in your musical journey?
JS: It is exactly musically where I should be right now. It’s a perfect return to the strip down, no prisoners sound, pillar crumbling, really heavy, pure, authentic metal without a lot of over dubs. We went crazy with the over dubs on the last album which was great and it was wonderful, like Burning Starr’s tribute to Queen and Boston. Some of our songs on the last album have fifteen or sixteen vocal layerings. It’s really amazing that our singer at the time, Todd Michael Hall, had that incredible ability to layer his voice. Very few people can do that. It’s called “stacking the voices”. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Freddie Mercury so you know when Todd was able to do that it was great. Then we set out to do an album. Todd had moved on to a band called “Riot”; and, we would have to forge a new identity or maybe revert back to a simpler stripped-down metal.
MP-D: Getting back to your comments before about Dave wanting a 50/50 ratio of songs and you wanted 70/30, is there a ratio with the music on “Souls of the Innocent” or do you see it as just pure metal?
JS: I would say it’s really a pure metal album, like shockingly so. You expect people to get more mellow as they get older; but, I am going in the opposite direction. I want to hear it louder and heavier. I want to hear vocals that cut through everything.
MP-D: Several musicians I have interviewed, tell me that when Grunge came along, it wiped them out commercially and they had to seek other markets for their commercial success and survival. Did you experience that in the 90s?
JS: Yes, it became very inclusive and if it didn’t involve grunge and depressing lyrics and wearing flannel shirts with your hair over your eyes and Keds sneakers, nobody liked it. Nobody wanted to see guys looking glamorous anymore or looking like it was important to them. It was the image of no image. It was the triumph of “let’s kill the rock star” and bands like Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It was a very defined image that they were putting out there and inherent in that image was the message that “we are the real thing, not you rockers, we are cool”. So, basically the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.
There was a lot of great stuff from the 80s and it did not really matter what they looked like, if somebody wanted to wear eye makeup, whatever. Bands like Guns and Roses and Metallica came out and were not at all part of that. Great stuff came out in the 90’s. We were out in the 80s and we certainly were not part of that either although we did one album where we looked foppish. It was a very difficult time. After ’92, I didn’t play metal for seven or eight years, but it got me to play other styles of music and broadened my ability on the guitar.
The internet existed but there was no Facebook. When the internet became more popular I realized that there were people out there who had not totally forgotten “Virgin Steele” or “Burning Starr” or Jack Starr or heavy metal. Heavy metal got very little airplay in the in the 90s. All of a sudden the internet comes out and I’m seeing all these little websites from people in Greece and Czech Republic, Italy and Japan. Now, I realize that the conception that metal was dead was very wrong. It was really alive but just wasn’t making much of a sound in America.
MP-D: It’s interesting that you’re very popular in Greece. I believe that this album is going to do very well. Is there going to be a tour this summer?
JS: I think so, and if I’m right and if you’re right, then it would be really great to be able to go out there and play and do the festival circuit and possibly tour America. What a concept playing in the country that you live in! We’ve never done it. We always had to get on plane and go to Germany, Italy and Greece. We were scheduled to play at a festival in Barcelona, Spain in 2021 and it got cancelled because of COVID. It was small, 3-4,000, but we would be headlining our own festival for the first time. Here we are starting to make some headway. It’s a good album and it looks like it is going to do well.
MP-D: Here is an album where you are certainly true to yourself. You’ve maintained your loyalty and commitment throughout your career. There’s are so many heavy metal fans that want to hear that pure sound. That is what you can deliver to them.
JS: Yes and we can deliver it unfiltered, uncompromised. I am a walking, breathing link to 1980s metal. We all have deep roots. Our singer Alex does not because we are all old enough to be his father. He is twenty-nine but he loves the music. He understands it and I don’t know why but Italians all have great voices. It is a total cliche but he just seems to have that bel canto. He’s got the talent and he gets it.
MP-D: I think it would be very refreshing to have someone like Alex in the band.
JS: It is. He has an enthusiastic approach because everything is new to him in a way. He is in awe working with us which sounds conceited, but I mean it in a really nice way. We met him at a festival in Germany. He was on a line to meet us after the show and get a photograph. We talked and then years later, after he was in the band, the picture surfaced. So for him I think there was an element that he got to play with the band that meant something to him. There was never any doubt in our minds that he was joining the band for any other reason except he really liked us and he liked our music. He liked us as people and we liked him. He’s just a great person, in fact, everybody in the band is. If there is a picture in the dictionary of heavy metal band of nice guys it would be us.
MP-D: Any more particulars on the upcoming tour?
JS: We are going in the direction of trying to make headway in the United States, doing interviews for the past three weeks four weeks. There was never any emphasis of a trying to make headway in America before. Everything was directed at Europe. We never thought of America as a potential place for “Burning Starr” to play. Here we are in 2022, we are signed to a different record label, Global Rock Records, with a different CEO/Owner Bryan Adams and a different manager, Giles Lavery who has a firm grasp on the whole metal scene. He works with a lot of these really great 80’s type metal bands and we were surprised that the label thought we could actually be liked in our own country.
At the beginning of our tour, we will get our feet wet with our first shows in America. There are great metal towns in Midwest America, like San Antonio, Texas, Cleveland Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, Orlando, Florida.
MP-D: is there anything else you’d like to say about “Souls of the Innocent”?
JS: We made a great album and it’s very well recorded. That’s important because you can have the greatest songs, the greatest performances but if the actual recording quality is not good, it’s very hard to listen to. This album was produced by Kevin Burns and he knows what he’s doing. He’s got a great studio and so I would say that’s an important consideration to the album. Not only is it good but it sounds good.
MP-D Just one more question, I see a cello next to you. What a beautiful instrument. Who plays it?
JS: it’s like furniture too. I love the sound of it. I really do. Since you mentioned it, we use some strings and cellos on one of the songs on “Souls of the Innocent”. A song called “Ships in the Night” is a big departure for Burning Starr. It was written by the bass player and that song has a lot of classical influence with the strings on the song. At first, I didn’t think that it would sound so good but cellos and heavy metal go together. It was like introducing us to another level.
MP-D: Are you comfortable with that level because you’re such a purist?
JS: Good question, yes I am because anything that’s done with honesty, passion and intensity [is pure]. No one is going to accuse Deep Purple of not being a metal, hard rock band when they work with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s how you do it and it’s the degree of intensity that you bring to it. So, whatever I did and whatever I’m going to do, in the future, will have a certain degree of intensity, passion and honesty.