Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Anvil’s Steve “Lips” Kudlow

Illustration for article titled Anvil’s Steve “Lips” Kudlow

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.”

AVC: That’s something that really comes across in the movie—your genuine sense of joy for your music. How do you stay in touch with that after so many years?


L: It’s probably from deprivation, in a certain sense. These rock stars, their problem is that they’re on tour 40 weeks of the year. And I think anything that you do too much of, you begin to take it for granted. I think that is a contributing factor. But really, it’s the joy of getting to create, and be who you are supposed to be. How else can I put it into words? The moment that you feel the most alive and the most contributing and the most fulfilled is when you’re onstage. So when I’m on tour, that’s the time of your life, man. This is when you’re the most alive. That’s the way I just look at it. I always have. It’s a very fortunate position to be in, to be able to go on tour. All bands vie for that. Only the big bands don’t, because they’ve got it all the time. For us, it’s not that way. It’s “When do you rock?” You’re always waiting.


AVC: You’ve stuck pretty close to your roots for a few decades. Are there other musical styles or sounds you want to try?


L:It’s sort of like trying a different hairstyle. I don’t know how to explain it, man. [If you change] no one will recognize you, once you’ve changed the color of your hair and you cut it all off. I don’t know, man. Some guys can do it and get away with it, some guys can’t. I haven’t really had the yearning to do anything other than what I’ve been doing. During a certain point of my career, there were questions. Was there something we could do with our music to make it more viable or more accessible, you know? You try it. You listen to it. You go, “I wouldn’t let this get out of my bedroom.” You know what I mean? It’s just like, “No, I don’t think so.”

As soon as you try, that’s the problem right there, in the aspect that you’re trying to steer your craft. You write from your subconscious. That’s the real truth. Most of the time, you don’t even know where or how you come up with things. And those things are the best you can come up with. Anything that you are purposely trying to steer ends up sounding contrived. It’s actually to your detriment when you do that. Like if I was to stop and think, “Well, people have really zeroed in on the fact that we’ve got double-bass drum speed going on, so I think I’m going to do a whole album of that,” then I’ve contrived it, haven’t I? So that’s not really right either, you see? So we discovered that as well. We do an album and it’s got some of the fast stuff on it, and people go, “Put more fast stuff on it.” The people who have made themselves visible to you and known to yourself are real fanatical people, and they usually have only a very, very narrow flavor to them. A narrow taste. So if you take that in and you think that’s what everybody wants, then you’re gravely mistaken. That’s what I’ve discovered.


And the way I discovered it? We did albums with it. We really felt that we had to prove that since we were getting older, we weren’t slowing down. Usually bands that get older slow down and get commercial. And they get lame. In the easiest terms, we had a lot to prove. We had to fill our albums with the most intense ways of playing to make sure it’s intensely underlined that we are not selling out or burning out. So we went on this tangent of creating really much more involved music with much more speed, and just being ourselves, but over the top. Purposely doing that, which is contriving, isn’t it? And trying to steer it. So what happened was, we put the album up—the Plugged In Permanent album as an example—and we had a backlash. We had all these fans from the past going, “What happened to Anvil? They got too heavy.” [Laughs.] We were under the impression you just couldn’t get heavy enough. What we discovered was, it’s not necessarily how heavy or insane you’re going: It’s gotta be natural. So we changed. We went back to the way we would originally approach writing: Whatever comes up, do it if it feels good. And we’ve done that for about the last three or four records, and we progressively got more and more on track. And we did things in that midsection, that earlier era and around Plugged In Permanent, like only writing songs in lower keys, because they sounded deeper and heavier. And what that does is, the band lost its brightness and cheerfulness.

We started out just the opposite. The only songs to ever have dissonant notes were songs like Forged In Fire or Metal On Metal, but then only slightly. It’s still predominantly in a non-dissonant mode. And in higher pitches, higher keys. Instead of low Ds, we were tuned to regular E for all the early albums. So not to appear really drastic, I slowly, as the albums progressed, returned to the regular tunings, regular modes, to where we’ve gotten now.


AVC: Speaking of contriving things, how did you pioneer playing guitar with a dildo?

L: Initially, as a child, I would experiment with things with my guitar, and one of the things was a toy called the Motorific. It was a little car with a motor that you would actually snap together, and it would have a little electrical motor in it that ran by two AA batteries. One day I was playing my guitar and I was fooling around with this little car and I happened to put it near the pickups, and the sound of the little motor sounded like an engine coming through my guitar. By the time I was 20, we were putting Anvil together and Robb wrote some of the pilot lyrics like for “School Love” and stuff, which were really nasty porno-lyrics, so to speak. So we said, “You know what? Let’s make the image of the band and the style that we go for this kind of thing.” So we started thinking of things we could do to exemplify that, so I just thought, “What about a vibrator? Why not try a vibrator and see what it would do?” Of course I knew it was going to make the noise through the pickups, but I thought, “It vibrates, so it’s going to make my strings vibrate as well, and it’s round, so it can be used for bottleneck.” So that’s where it came from. It certainly was an interesting idea, if nothing else. Nobody ever forgot that I did it, that’s for sure.

AVC: It’s pretty memorable.

L: Yeah, it is. It came along with a lot of stuff that used to go on in our shows, man. Crazy. We’d hang bras and panties and all kinds of shit on the amps and mic stands. Feather boas. Real sleaze. That was ridiculous, man. In the early days, you’d come off the stage after that and you’d have to fight your way into the changing room, because there’s girls lined up. Lots of things have changed since those days, but it’s still fun to think about them. They’re a different era. It’s a completely different era. The real perverse, sexual stuff that existed in the ’80s is quite gone. Once AIDS came in, it was over, man. Completely changed everything.


AVC: That pressure to prove you weren’t slowing down, did you feel that about your vocals as well?

L: Yeah, to a certain level, because it was really out of style to sing high in metal. It really became boring. [Laughs.] And the reason for that is that there were thousands of bands doing it, so then people starting going, “How boring, man.” And the music that was coming up and around us, there was a real transition toward becoming extremely unmelodic, and the more unmelodic, the better. And the more disjointed and evil-sounding the riffs could be, the better. [Laughs.] It was almost like the more unmusical it became, the heavier it became. I mean, the definition of music is melody to a rhythm, and when you can’t tell melody and you can barely even tell the rhythm, it’s not music anymore, is it? [Laughs.]


AVC: Why are you and Robb the only band members featured in the movie?

L: Generally speaking, the guy who made the film only knew of the old band, so we’re the original members to him. The other guys are new guys. Thusly, to him, they didn’t mean the same. It’s understandable from his perspective, and the movie is from his perspective, so I have to be understanding of that. The other fact is that Robb and I have been together since we were 15, 16 years old. When I was 16 years old, Glenn [Five] was only 2, so there’s something to be said about that as well. And the other thing is, the more the characters you add, the more diluted the story gets, and you tend to lose on focus. There’s a number of reasons, and I’m only giving you some of them. The other thing is, there’s no history, really, from a certain perspective. Glenn’s only been with us 13 years, which is relatively only half the band’s existence. And I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. I knew it would be eventually asked. I’m really at a loss to be able to completely answer it.


But those are the real general reasons. It’s nothing personal. For cinemagraphic representation of what’s going on, I think it serves its purpose the way it is. I’d have to agree with Sacha [Gervasi, producer-director] that once you start adding other things in, you know—like why isn’t my wife in the movie more? Or why isn’t my mother in the movie more? There’s only two shots of my mother in the whole movie, right? I think there’s only three or four of my wife. She only does one interview, right? If you analyzed everything, you could start ripping it apart, I suppose, and start asking questions. It’s funny, because during Q&As, we get women asking why isn’t my wife in it more. They could have used more the perspective of my wife, somehow. It’s interesting. It depends on who you ask and how they feel about it.

AVC: How do you feel about the movie?

L: I think it’s amazing, actually. It’s really groundbreaking in so many ways. I’ve never been to a movie where I felt like my opinion and what I think about the movie is going to affect the characters. We have a very, very unique situation where people coming to see the movie can have a say in the epilogue, you know? They buy my CD or come to my concert or any of the above. They’ve created more chapters, haven’t they? A continuation. It’s quite a fascinating situation. The other aspect, the movie runs almost as a sort of scripted drama, to a great degree, and it’s not even actors. You gotta think a lot about what that really is. The takes that he has are all one-takes. It’s not like he could say, “Okay, lose your temper and let’s retake that scene with the bar owner again.” It’s not gonna happen. Like I said, that could have been a staged fight, but it isn’t. He’s put the movie together in such a way that you’re questioning, “Is this real?” We’ve had people not believe it’s real at all.


AVC: People are pretty eager to compare the movie to Spinal Tap. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?

L: Understand this: Spinal Tap is our Trojan horse. That’s the easiest way to describe that. There’d be no way in a million years that you could make a documentary about a metal band without it immediately being compared. We embraced it. People come in expecting to have a big laugh at Anvil and end up crying at our trials and tribulations, and falling in love with the characters and only wanting success for them.


We’re not pitiful characters. I don’t know if you can say that someone who is tenacious and dedicated is a loser. So what this is really doing for the metal genre is completely shattering the stereotype of what heavy metal is. And for the first time in musical history, you’re actually seeing what it really is to be in a band. This is the first time that someone’s actually had enough balls to let the world see what it really is. This is what it means to go on the road. This is what it means to go after your dreams and try to do it, even when you’re the only one who believes. Lots of people own their own businesses, man, and give up, and maybe had they waited an extra month, things could have turned around. This is the beauty of the whole thing, and it’s quite remarkable.