John-Paul Davies speaks with Black Stone Cherry drummer, John-Fred Young about kicking-off their Experience Kentucky tour in St David’s Hall, Cardiff. Wales is home from home for the hard rock band who refuse to stick to the rule book. A different sort of venue for a different sort of tour, Experience Kentucky will open with Black Stone Cherry stripped-back and acoustic.
How does it feel to be opening the tour in Cardiff?
I love Wales, dude. We played there year before last and it was incredible. I love the countryside there, man. It has those Kentucky rolling hills and I feel like I’m home. The first time we ever played in Wales, I think it was 2009, we played some clubs and it was killer. We actually started the tour there last year in the Motorpoint.
But Experience Kentucky is going to be quite a different gig from last year’s tour. What can you tell us about the first half set?
We’re gonna do it in our underwear. People are going to be throwing up! [Laughs] It’s going to be really really cool. We’re just trying to get everything together for it, we wanna make it really special, something people haven’t seen before. I know a lot of bands do the kind of thing we’re fixin’ to do, but I think ours will be a little different. So I’m really looking forward to it.
During the promotion of Experience Kentucky you’ve mentioned it will be your last time playing live in the U.K. for some time – can you share with us what you have planned?
Touring everywhere else in the world! It pains me so hard to have to take a short little vacation from your part of the world. I love the UK. It has really enlightened me as a person. I had travelled a bit in the States but when we started touring internationally back in ’07, going to Europe, going to England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland and everywhere, it was mind-blowing. We have been in your part of the world so much the last decade we’re gonna take a little vacation for a while. It’s nothing personal, we just don’t wanna burn people out. So we’re trying to end the year with something really, really special.
So what inspired the idea for Experience Kentucky?
Doing Kentucky was killer because it was the first time that we had got released from Roadrunner Records. We were on that label for nine years.
Was it hard to take, being released?
It did not feel hard, it was one of the greatest feelings in the world. Roadrunner really got corporate and it got bought out by Warner Atlantic and it was hard for us, as a band, to keep being creative. In America they have this club and if you don’t sound exactly like X, Y, Z band you’re not getting on the radio because of these huge programme directors in the clouds, up there in the sky. If something’s hot every other band has got to sound like that. We fought with that for years and years. The label wanted us to sound like this band and that band. Honestly, they wanted us to sound like Nickelback. And God I love Nickelback, I don’t mean to talk bad about those guys, we toured with them – killer bunch of dudes – excellent rock ‘n’roll players. It’s hard, we don’t sound like them, or Slipknot, or other bands that Roadrunner had, so we had to fight for our identity. The years went on and hell, we had an email telling us we had been released and it was a breath of fresh air for us. We were like, “Dude we have got to just take a moment, breathe, relax, drink half a case of beer and figure out what we’re gonna do.”
When it was public that we were free agents we had so many labels and management companies and all kinds of people contacting us. It was really humbling because 10 years ago we were doing that, we were begging people to take us on.
Did that make it hard to choose your new label?
We met with about seven different record labels and the number one label that stood out was Mascot Records. They have been so good to us and they have allowed us to be who we are: southern rock guys from Kentucky who grew up on British rock’n’roll, Motown and the country stuff that we were brought up with here in Kentucky, bluegrass. So we are going to be in control of our sound, the production, of how we make records and music videos.
Like The Rambler, that’s quite different for Black Stone Cherry. Where did that idea come from?
The Rambler is very different, man, The Rambler was great. Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley Cyrus’ dad, we had him acting in that video with us. We’ve got a director friend of ours from around home who’s done a lot of cool, rebel country videos around Nashville for Waylon Jennings and Blackberry Smoke – Blake Judd is his name. He said, “Man I want to do The Rambler video”. We were like, “Alright, man!”
So he said, “I just sent a text out to Billy Ray to ask if he’d be The Rambler… you know I was kinda hammered when I asked him, I didn’t figure he’d even text back. Man, I got a text right back: ‘Man I love those guys, I wanna play The Rambler.’” So we were blown away.
He had that huge Achy Breaky Heart in the ‘90s. My dad and uncle are in the band The Kentucky Headhunters and they used to open for Billy Ray. So I remember dancing on stage with Billy Ray while he was playing Achy Breaky Heart. One of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met in my life, I’m telling you, one hundred percent.
Before Mascot Records was it difficult having to fit into a mould to get airplay?
We’ve built everything from a band perspective. Radio did not help us in the beginning. It’s been our live show, our energetic songs and the connection we have with the fans that’s kept us going. We’re trying to write songs that can be relatable, and huge at festivals, and can be intimate too.
Is that what Kentucky is about, trying to capture those two aspects of Black Stone Cherry?
We started writing this record in probably February 2015, we were just writing from a place of freedom. For the first time in so long, being able to create music without somebody looking over our shoulders. We recorded the album here locally at home. We didn’t just sit around, we made the most kick-ass, rock’n’roll album that represents where we’re from, all of our influences.
Like back in the early days of Black Stone Cherry?
Like back in the early days. Same thing, man: lugging our equipment, sitting there eating Mexican food – we just hammered it. We were in there a month and a day, I think.
You released a live DVD in 2014, recorded in the UK, in Birmingham. What was that like?
Man that was so fun to make. I tell you what, that was nerve-wracking as hell dude. Because we had never, ever made a DVD and I remember backstage man, we were all doing shots of bourbon, we were all nerves, nerves, nerves. Because, I tell you what, if you’re putting on a live show, that’s one thing. But when it’s on tape, when it’s on record – ah man! Because, to be honest with you, we didn’t go back and fix things. You know a lot of times what bands will do is a quote, unquote, live recording. It’s filmed live but they go back into the studio and they overdub guitars, they recorrect vocals – they’re shit out of tune! We don’t run any backing tracks live. The only thing we use is a metronome to keep us from playing songs like we’re on acid. That’s the only thing we do. We pride ourselves in that, man. There’s not too many bands out there that are still going out, plugging in and actually playing without a karaoke machine behind them. The live DVD is killing, man. I was so glad we got to do it in England.
You’ve chosen a very different sort of venue on this tour.
These clubs that we’re fixing to do, I don’t think they do that many hard rock bands. Our guy Dylan, our lighting guy, he grew up with Ben, our guitar player, and moved to London after he met a hot girl over there. He goes, “Dude, I’m calling all these places about lights and these places have orchestras coming in!” I know this is going to be one of the coolest tours we’ve done.
Very different from your huge successes at Download and Ramblin’ Man?
Listen, Download and Ramblin’ Man were incredible. But the problem is – God this sounds like such an ego statement, I don’t mean it to be at all – you can’t do an arena tour every time you go to a place. And man, we are so lucky and so fortunate to be able to headline arenas now. But you can’t just Def Leppard them all the time you know? It’s like Joe Elliott said – we opened for those guys in 2008 – “I’m lovin’ your sound, it’s cool, it reminds me of us when we started.” He did a side project – I don’t know what he did but it was smaller theatres. He said, “Everybody loved the show. But the one comment they had was I was pointing up to the rafters and everybody was right in front of me.” He wasn’t used to looking down! So with us, we’re always trying to make the shows connected to people. Because sometimes in arenas man, you get up there and you lose the people in the rafters. And I know what it’s like to sit in the nosebleeds, every rock’n’roll fan does. When you get an opportunity to get back in the small places, I think people never forget those shows. It’s going to be a wonderful night.
Experience Kentucky: An Evening with Black Stone Cherry, St David’s Hall, Cardiff. Sat 19 Nov. Tickets: £28. Info: website here.