Anvil’s Steve “Lips” Kudlow
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Although the buzz around the new documentary Anvil!: The Story Of Anvil suggests that the obscure Canadian metal band is a “real-life Spinal Tap,” that’s a bit misleading. Yes, the band has hung in there since the late ’70s with amps that go to 11. But singer-guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner have soldiered on with their once-groundbreaking speed/thrash metal in spite of legal problems, woefully inept managers, and eventually being eclipsed by bands they influenced, like Slayer and Metallica. Those years of marginalization may have finally paid off, though, making Lips and company the ultimate underdogs in Anvil, which follows the band from 2005 to 2007 as it attempted to tour Europe and record its 13th album, This Is Thirteen. As Anvil is being released in theaters around the country this month, Anvil is touring to perform after moving screenings. Fresh from quitting his day job and poised to make a comeback, Lips spoke to The A.V. Club about being the mom-and-pop store of metal bands and why you should never give up on your dreams.
The A.V. Club: Were you in the studio before this interview?
Lips: I just got home now. We had to re-record a couple songs from the second album for Rock Band.
AVC: Oh really?
L: Yeah, because the original 24-tracks got destroyed. Or they’re lost, whatever. And we need the multi-tracks.
AVC: Have you played Rock Band?
L: No, haven’t gotten around to it.
AVC: When did that come together?
L: I don’t know. The last few weeks, I guess?
AVC: When is it going to be available?
L: We’re doing it now, so probably soon.
AVC: How was it re-recording those old songs?
L: Really easy. Shocking. [Laughs.] I mean, like, really shocking how quickly you can get through stuff when you know it that well. You know what you have to do instead of not knowing for sure.
AVC: Which songs were you re-recording?
L: “Metal On Metal,” “666.” And we also did a song for the soundtrack. We finally recorded “Thumb Hang.” That’s just for the soundtrack.
AVC: Why did you decide to finally record “Thumb Hang”?
L: [Laughs.] Because everybody’s been asking for it since the movie. Since it’s been divulged that we had a song called that, everybody wants to hear the song.
D: Do you guys still have day jobs?
L: I don’t have a day job.
AVC: When did that change?
L: Oh, the last month or so. No time. I’ve been on airplanes and traveling all over the world, man. There’s no time to go to work.
AVC: That must be pretty nice.
L: It certainly beats the hell out of working. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you still trying to secure a major-label deal?
L: We’re kind of not sure what we want to do with that. There are offers, but I don’t know, man, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re giving somebody 80 percent of your intake. For what? It’s ridiculous when you stop and think about it. They’ll give you $1.50 for every sale. And we were selling the CD for $20! It only costs us 80 cents a CD to manufacture. So there’s basically $19 as opposed to $1.50. The whole reason a record company does that is because they’re paying for promotion. Why do I need promotion when there’s a movie and I’m in every magazine and newspaper from here to Timbuktu? [Laughs.] It doesn’t make sense. The PayPal thing for the album has been an endless flow in selling. If you get $50,000 or something to record an album, you don’t have to sell that many records to pay it back, at $20 a pop. The other way, you have to sell 50,000 records to start seeing a profit.
AVC: Have you re-assessed your skepticism toward independent labels? In the movie, you said you didn’t think they could do your music justice.
L: Well, you know what it is? We’ve been in the business for so long, and we have a dedicated fan base. So we know, generally, how much money should be spent on a record. Because you know what you’re gonna get rid of, you know what you’re gonna sell. So we’ve been working within those parameters. In this particular case, we went with our original producer, which has been a lot more expensive an endeavor. But the upside of that is because we haven’t got a label, we’re making really a 1,000 percent profit on each sale. So we’ve been well better off just leaving it the way that it is.
And even the labels that we’ve been talking about, they’ve been hesitant to even talk about buying it, or licensing it. You know, they’re more interested in the soundtrack or maybe the next album, because after they’ve seen the movie, they don’t want to rip us off. There’s a lot of guilt, man. BMI has been chasing us since they saw the move, which has been over a year now.
AVC: What has happened to Anvil after the end of the movie?
L: We’ve been very busy. Obviously, everything’s picked up 1,000 percent, man. I’m not playing gigs for $1,000, $500 bucks anymore. [Laughs.] Whatever. Do you know what I mean? A lot of those things have changed, and I don’t think they’ll ever be the same. We’ll never be on the level, the sort of lower echelon that we’ve traveled through for the last 30 years. It’s not gonna be like that.
AVC: The movie doesn’t really say much about your history or the band’s chronology.
L: No, they don’t, and it gives you the idea that we’ve done nothing. It’s actually quite ludicrous. I’ve been using the analogy of—we’ve got Home Depot and we’ve got the independent hardware store. We’re the independent hardware store. Just because we don’t make millions of dollars doesn’t mean we’re not successful. We’ve got basically all the close-by neighborhood people buying from us. Yes, the majority of people buy at Home Depot, but what about when you need something really quick and you don’t want to drive all the way out to Home Depot?
AVC: So you’re the mom-and-pop store of metal bands?
L: [Laughs.] Yeah! Only about .1 percent of metal bands make it. I mean, come on, man. When you think about how many thousands of metal bands there have been, and there’s only four really big ones? That speaks real loud and clear to me. The average person doesn’t realize that, and there’s a lot of judgment that goes with that. I’ve really noticed that when I read articles about the movie and stuff, they really like to take chunks out of that, really being down on it, but the fact is, you know, it’s not. You don’t have to sell millions of records, man. These days you’re lucky if you sell thousands, generally, which is what the vast majority does. MySpace is jam-packed with the shit. A never-ending volume of musicians, bands out there. Trying to get someplace. Very few and far between ever get much further than recording a couple of records, never mind recording 13 records.
AVC: How many fights have you gotten in with bar owners over not getting paid? You seemed to instantly snap into that mode in the movie, where the bar owner was trying to fink out on you.
L: That was the first time in my career that I’ve actually had an altercation like that. But I think it’s so cool, because it got caught. I mean, I’m sure that most bands go through it once, twice, like that, where the guy just outright says, “I’m not gonna pay you.” It happened once before many years ago. The guy refused to pay and he fired us on a Wednesday night, or something like that. We used to play full weeks. [Laughs.] So we went ballistic and we had gone out shopping and everything, and we took all of our stuff like bacon and things like that, stuck it between the beds, and took peanut butter, stuffed it in all the electrical sockets. We just kind of did naughty things that they wouldn’t realize we did until sometime after.
Those things do happen, but it’s rare, and I think it’s really, really amazing that the cameras were running at the time. Because it could just have very easily been missed. That’s like a number of things that happened all through the entire three years. They just got really lucky. I mean, Robb and I have probably had half a dozen fights in 30 years. They just happened to catch one. [Laughs.] I mean, the last big one like that, interestingly, was in the last week of recording Forged In Fire, our third album, and of course [producer] Chris [Tsangarides] had to do the same thing and talk us down, so it wasn’t his first time doing it.
AVC: What’s one thing that wasn’t shown in the movie that you’d like people to know about Anvil?
L: That it’s not as dismal as people might take it, because I certainly wouldn’t have continued this length of time if it was that dismal. It always showed me hope throughout the entire career. It’s not that I’m just hopeless for no blind reason. Plus, the musicians that did come forward and say all this stuff about us, that’s as authentic as it could yet. These guys have all been friends through the years, so getting them to come forward like that, it was their honor and privilege. That’s how they really looked at it. And it’s interesting, because it’s not just those guys. It’s guys like Sebastian Bach, Phil Anselmo—really, really devoted fans. There’s an endless list. There’s the guys in Flotsam And Jetsam. There’s a lot of bands that came particularly after us that really let themselves be known to us, come to our gigs, e-mailing, you know, long, dear friends who have always shown us a great deal of respect.
AVC: Have you sought help from these more famous bands to get Anvil more attention?
L: Well, there are issues. When they choose a band to support, they generally gravitate toward bands that have record deals and stuff that are related to them. Like, if you looked at who was opening for Slayer, I guess they’re on Sony, so you’d probably see other Sony acts on their tours. And if it wasn’t, then their manager was really good friends with Slayer’s manager, or it was a favor. There’s a lot of political reasons. And some things like buy-ons, those are other ways of getting onto a tour, is to buy onto a tour. And it’s really important for people to know this. In order for people to believe that you are credible—if you’re never seen in a support position or playing in major festivals, you will never gain credibility. Impossible.
So if you get a tour with let’s say, Aerosmith, or Motörhead, like we have, we gain lots of credibility at that time. And it doesn’t really go away, because you can’t take away what’s already happened. You attain a level of credibility that you’re a recording act, and a touring act, and pretty much it stays intact. No, you don’t play 10,000-seat places, but you can play clubs endlessly, which is where we began, and where the majority of my career has taken place. Even during the period of time that I did do tours with Aerosmith, Motörhead, and whatever, we still played clubs anyway. None of that changed, and it was on the odd occasion [when] we did a five-week tour with Motörhead in England, and all of a sudden we’re a concert band… in England? [Laughs.] You know what I mean? We would come home and we’d play Quebec in the same old clubs that we always have. But like I say, you have whatever your history is, and it remains with you. It’s your history, your legacy. It’s not such a clear-cut, “either you make it or you don’t.” It’s sort of a gray area. I’d just as soon explain it than defend it. To me, I look at it as I’ve been extraordinarily successful. Thirteen times. [Laughs.]
AVC: So what is your definition of success? Putting out albums?
L: Success is being able to record your songs and get them to your fans. And to be able to do that over and over again.
AVC: It’s as simple as that?
L: And then get to tour. I mean, what else could you ask for? Money? Well, money isn’t everything, man. It really isn’t. Yet people are focused only on that one thing, and it’s really, well, what’s the answer to that? You know, Mick Jagger has more money than you could ever, ever dream of, so what’s his motivation to go on tour, then? He loves what he’s doing. It’s the same motivation that I have. He’s a lifer. That’s what he does. That’s who he is. You can’t just say, “I’m gonna stop being me.” And I think that it’s a longing in a musician’s soul to go out and play, man. It’s what it’s really all about. It’s interesting.
We had a conversation with Rob Halford from Judas Priest, and the way that he talked to us was, “You guys have been doing it as long as we have.” He gives us the same respect as if we’ve financially been as successful as they are, because in a way we have, because if you measure success by the amount of records and songs you write, then what’s that? That’s ultimately what it really is. How many songs and how many albums, how many tours—that’s what success is.
AVC: Why do you think you didn’t sell millions of records like the other bands mentioned in the beginning of the movie?
L: There are a lot of reasons. We had reached a certain plateau when we had big-time management get involved with us. We had a record deal originally here in Canada. That big-time manager went in and pulled us out of the record deal. He got the label to let us go. Once the label let us go, he didn’t replace the record label, and left us hanging at a really crucial time at the end of 1983. Which is pretty bad, man. That was the time to have been in the studio recording, not sitting around waiting. That’s what he did. He held us in like that for about two years, wouldn’t release us, didn’t get us a record deal, so we went ahead and wrote all of the new material at the time, didn’t go into a studio, and off the cuff, we recorded the album, because we had no label. After that, we licensed it to Roadrunner and Metal Blade and basically it went out all over the world. We’ve been doing licensing deals every record.
AVC: You never feel bitter about that period of time?
L: No, because the way I looked at it, we fucked up. We’ll just have to get it sorted and try again. What are you gonna do? You can’t change what happened. There’s no sense in beating yourself up over it, or being bitter. Who am I being bitter toward? Who do I shoot?
AVC: Do you think Anvil would have been equipped to handle the fame and attention you were seeking in the ’80s if you’d gotten it at the time?
L: That’s a good question. And I would probably say no.
AVC: Why not?
L: Because we were only in our 20s. You’re usually pretty self-destructive at that point. You have an attitude that everything’s gonna last forever. And when I think about the past, that’s why it didn’t really faze us at the time, that things were fucked-up and we’d have to do it all again. It’s like, “So what? It’s gonna last forever anyway.”