Denmark, February 1999 by Rasmus Heide
Despite being busy with other projects Neil Murray has recently teamed up with his old Whitesnake colleagues Bernie Marsden and Micky Moody (and Colosseum II colleague Don Airey) in The Company Of Snakes. Among other things in this exclusive interview, Neil talks about his view on Whitesnake’s role in the late 90’s, his own style of bass playing and the background to Cozy Powell’s very last album. The Company Of Snakes – earlier known as just The Snakes – have been going for quite a while, but you’ve only just joined now – how come?
I think Bernie had wanted me to do it before, but I’ve been so involved with Brian May and I still will be when he goes out on tour again in May-June. I’ll play with both bands and maybe they can all be fitted in together.
It sure is good to see the three of you together again. How does it feel?
It’s good fun. We hardly had any rehearsal. But we still get some people coming along and saying “Why don’t you play Still Of The Night” or something because they think of Whitesnake from 1987 onwards.
Here in Europe wouldn’t you meet mostly fans of the old stuff?
Yeah mostly, I’m sure. The trouble is the older people will tend not to go out to a club or see you in concert. The younger people come out and they’re the ones who are expecting newer songs. I think a lot of it is people not being aware – they don’t know who’s in the band, they don’t know what it’s about. It’s early days for us, really. Three different line-ups were announced for these dates here in Scandinavia… The trouble is that Bernie and Micky will tend to do other gigs in between. They might do a Moody-Marsden Band gig where they might have the same people, but they won’t play the same songs. And then the next week the drummer might have to go off and do something else. For example, in April we’re doing some British gigs, but John Lingwood has to go and play with Roger Chapman so it’ll be a different drummer then. There’s only very few people – the really really staunch fans, the hardcore fans – who are into this enough to really follow what’s going on. At this level of playing clubs and such it’s never going to be a very exciting thing that gets much publicity. There’ll be hundreds and hundreds of Whitesnake fans who will never know we’re playing because they haven’t seen it on TV, or they haven’t read it in the newspaper because they don’t bother going to clubs very much. So even if everybody did know they might say “Oh well, I might have gone to see them about 15 years ago, but not now”. There’s always going to be a lot of people not interested. They liked us when they were teenagers but that’s past history.
So consequently with a lot of these bands you’re not making enough money and working enough to be able to have one fixed line-up. Everybody needs to take whatever comes along. If suddenly you’ve got three or six weeks off and you’ve got no money coming in, you’re a freelance musician and you’ve got to find work. And John’s been with Roger Chapman for years and years and that’s likely to keep going. That’s more secure in a way than The Company Of Snakes is, because Roger Chapman has more gigs every year. And the same with Brian May, that’s more of a prior commitment to me. It’s on a higher level of success. It’d be nice to do a lot of different things, but the public finds it very hard to keep up. Anyway, the English dates will be with Henry Spinetti on drums which is a shame because John’s pretty good.
How does he compare to Ian Paice?
I guess there are some similarities. Paicey, is so much his own person. He’s got very much his own style and if you’re playing songs that he had a lot to do with then any other drummer is either going to try and copy Ian or is going to play them slightly differently. I kind of adapt to whoever I’m playing with. I think the way John plays is really good for these songs, but then you could say the perfect player for these songs is Ian and anyone else is second best. It’s always gonna be that way really. But if you had Ian and Jon (Lord) in the band you wouldn’t play in little clubs – the whole thing would be different. Sometimes we have to compromise, playing places like this and using rented equipment. That’s not John’s drumkit, and probably Ian would say “Well, I’m not playing there then, if I don’t have my own drumkit”. That kind of thing where we’re not doing everything the way we’d want to do it.
Would you say that the era of Whitesnake you’re doing now is your favourite style?
Yes, I think so. There’s still things about it – it doesn’t cover everything, but yeah, there’s a lot about it I did like. Some of it was to do with the actual players in the band and how I fitted in with their styles. It was also a very democratic band where I was making up my own bass playing. Almost all the bands I’ve been in since then… If they’re well known people then we played lots of old songs that I wouldn’t have made up the bass parts for so I’m having to copy other people’s things, sometimes almost for the whole set. That’s a challenge, but it’s not very satisfying. Perhaps I have to copy their sound as well and it might even be a sound that I don’t really like. But it’s what’s expected and it’s what fits in with the song. It’s good in this band that I’m kind of copying myself really.
I’m not saying that every song that Whitesnake ever did was that great, they had some good ones and some not so good ones, but there’s often a certain kind of freedom, at least in certain parts, to change things around. They don’t have to be exactly the same every night and there’s that willingness to stretch things out or suddenly go off in a different direction. And that’s inspiring to me, if someone allows you to do that. There are other people who don’t want you to do that. They want you to stay very much in the background. Gary Moore would hate it if I did that, he just wanted me to be very solid and not to stand out, just to be very supportive. And that was really why we parted company, because he wanted something different from the rhythm section than what me or Ian really wanted to give.
But it’s not really very often that you find a situation where you’re allowed to play like that, to sort of put in your own things. Sometimes people write songs in such a way that there isn’t any room to put anything in – you’ve got to just play the fixed thing, play the riff. In Black Sabbath you play the riff most of the time or it’s just very structured. Or like Brian May will play bass on a lot of records, and you pretty much have to copy that. Not completely and utterly. But yes, there’s that obvious blues influence in Whitesnake that I enjoy.
As a bass player you seem very different in sound and style from Geezer Butler.
Yeah, except that we both were pretty influenced by Jack Bruce. A lot of what Sabbath did in terms of the bass playing is sort of late 60’s early 70’s style of busy bass playing and that comes quite natural to me. It’s still not like the Whitesnake style of bass playing, and to be honest there wasn’t enough of it that was like that, where you’re kind of quite free to play around and about. The difficulty was that the fans, and Tony Iommi to some extent, really wanted Geezer to be there. And anybody that isn’t Geezer is going to be different and it took me quite some time to find my place so to speak. Partly because I was having to play songs from particularly Headless Cross, where the style of bass playing was completely opposite to Geezer’s and thus I had to be able to play something much more modern, more 80’s style of bass playing, much more clean and maybe more technical even. And then the next song might be very typically Geezer Butler style. So I couldn’t concentrate on just trying to be totally like Geezer, because I had to cover a lot of other areas as well. But all four members of the original Sabbath have got their own individual styles that aren’t really copyable, not totally, especially when you’ve got the four of them together. But let’s say there was Ozzy, Tony, Bill Ward and myself, then I would fit into it more obviously. But the minute you change one of those guys it becomes different. You get Cozy and it becomes more different, and you’re playing songs that are quite different from early Sabbath. I felt there was quite a lot of pressure on me, because basically a lot of fans just wanted the original line-up and the old songs. They didn’t want to hear anything new.But it’s not quite true that if you only knew me from the beginning of Whitesnake, then you would know what I play like, that’s what I am. That was a big part of me, but my biggest influence, in the late 60’s when I started playing, was Jack Bruce and that kind of busy style of bass playing. You know, like Andy Fraser from Free where the bass is very prominent. Geezer is a much more nasty version of the same thing, more raw, but still along the same lines, where you put lots of notes in and ideally you can have a huge, enormous, big sound to fill the whole thing up. He’s been accused of playing lead bass. Yeah, but I don’t see anything wrong with that, it doesn’t bother me, but a lot of people don’t like it. I don’t think I could ever get away with being as loud as he is, he’s absolutely deafening! But if I only want to be in a band where we play songs that I’ve made up the bass line for and it’s my choice of bass sound then I would probably never do any work.
Or you’d only do stuff like this.
Yeah, but we’re even doing Bad Company songs so I’ve had to listen to Boz. The Bad Company songs fit in well but it’s a strange concept. If Robert Hart wasn’t the singer and hadn’t been with Bad Company for a couple of years we wouldn’t be doing Can’t Get Enough etc. But we’re not going to start doing Rainbow songs or whatever. We’ve got people who can play pretty well and they can probably play any songs there are, but you’ve got to think about what the audience is expecting you to do and for every song outside of Whitesnake they might go “Well they could have played such and such Whitesnake songs instead…” But really this is a reasonably good approximation of the old band. It’s never going to be the same without David, Jon and Ian…
You’ve recently been in Peter Green’s band together with Cozy Powell. That was a very different thing to this, but still blues based. Which style of blues suits you better?
Some of the older songs and some of the more standard blues stuff was OK. But the kind of bluesy rock or, let’s say, more high intensity blues is what I’m more interested in doing. It’s more my style. If it’s very kind of quiet and laid back then it’s not really me. I don’t feel like I can put much into it, so there was lots in that band where we could have done much more but Peter didn’t really want to. He just wants to have a very subdued, rather 50’s blues type thing. It didn’t seem like the ideal style for Cozy either. I know, but personality-wise and drumming-wise, the Splinter Group needed some of Cozy’s pushing forward. Because if everybody was playing very very quietly and very subtly, then it would just fall apart. It was very difficult when we started because Peter would be playing so little and so quietly – playing less and less and it was almost like you’re just about to stop because there’s nothing going on. So Cozy wouldn’t be able to do that. He would tone everything right down, but there would still be some drive and energy. But I’m sure it was very frustrating for him.
There was also the situation with promoters who’d say things like “Oh, Peter Green, I’ve heard very bad stories about him and I don’t think he can play anymore” and our agent would say “Well look, he’s got Neil Murray, and Cozy Powell and Spike Edney from Brian May’s band.” So that was like their insurance policy, their guarantee that it was going to be okay. And we did have some very good nights. If you’re a fan of that particular style of blues then you’d have loved it. There were some people who thought it was fantastic. Peter Green has definitely got something which, if you’re into blues, you can’t learn how to do. He is a blues man who’s got it within him. The way he plays is not complicated, but it’s actually very very difficult to copy. You can’t just learn to play like that, he’s got a certain kind of feeling. And the same with his voice. He can sing a phrase and the timing of it would be something a rock singer would never do and would find it very difficult to learn how to do. Peter Green just has it, but you have to be tuned into it. If you’re on that wavelength, on a good night he can be really good. But no, it wasn’t really my kind of thing that I love doing. But I have played a lot more blues stuff than Cozy – it really wasn’t his thing, but he adapted to it.
Speaking of Cozy going in new directions – recently his very last album, Especially For You, was released in Japan. This is a very unusual album for Cozy. His previous albums were much more focused on the instrumental side whereas this one is more mainstream, almost commercial at times. What’s the story behind it?
Well, guitarist Mike Casswell joined the Brian May Band for its first tour in South America in November 1992. He was replaced by Jamie Moses before the next lot of touring in early ’93, partly because Brian wanted a strong backing singer who was also a good guitarist, whereas Mike wasn’t as strong vocally. Cozy very much liked the way he played and heard some of his song demos which he decided to use as the basis for his next solo album. I was involved, but most of the songs already had bass on, played by a guy called Phil Williams. We got hold of Dougie White in April 1994, who sang very well on some of the songs, but was soon ‘stolen’ by Ritchie! (Ritchie Blackmore was reforming Rainbow at that time.) Singer John West from northern California came into the picture in May, and came over in June to sing on the tracks.
Later in the year, when myself and Cozy had rejoined Black Sabbath, Mike and John wrote and recorded more songs together in Cortland, upstate New York. Then Cozy went into Monnow Valley studio in Wales and overdubbed drums onto the tracks. In March 1995 I recorded the bass parts, though there may be a couple of songs on the album which have the original bass tracks played by Phil Williams. A lot of what I did stays close to what he did. Mike Casswell plays bass on ‘The Light’, although I’m credited with all the bass.
Were the sessions originally intended to go out under another name?
It was always intended to be a group album, though it wasn’t recorded that way, and because the recording money came from Cozy’s Japanese record deal, it became his solo album – plus we couldn’t think of a good name for the band!
The album was never really finished, as the record company wanted Cozy to put some tracks with famous musicians on to make it easier to market. The money ran out, partly because there was no advance from any label elsewhere in the world, so the mixes on the album were probably done quickly. I know John West and Mike Casswell are not totally happy with them. It’s hard to know if the album would have come out in its present form if Cozy hadn’t died; During ’96 and ’97 nothing seemed to be happening with the project at all.
I know Cozy liked playing the material on the record and he wanted to tour with that lineup, but there was very little interest from the music business in that style of music or the musicians involved. He certainly didn’t listen to much heavy metal for pleasure, and I think he wanted to break away from the standard image of him being an unsubtle ‘basher’.
In the light of your previous and later history with Cozy it now seems strange that when he joined Whitesnake David Coverdale thought you wouldn’t fit in with him…
Well, that’s what he said to me, but that may not have been the truth. But he also said around that time that he really wanted somebody who played with a different sound, someone who played with a pick, a very trebly sound. He always raved about Colin Hodgkinson’s bass playing, but also that sound. When David was in Purple, Glenn Hughes had a very kind of cutting bass sound with a pick and that wasn’t really me. And it wasn’t really what I thought suited Whitesnake’s music at that time anyway. I’m sure David wanted the luxury of trying some different people. If you’re going for a hard rock sound like Cozy then you’d tend to go for a more hard rock bass sound which would typically be with a pick, though Colin Hodgkinson is probably too much of a jazz-blues bass player anyway. But that was some experiment anyway.
And then when I came back into the band they were saying “There are some songs David would really like you to play with the pick,” but I actually never did. I think I tried on one album track on 1987, and it didn’t sound right so I redid it with fingers and it sounded much better and it was still very similar in sound. Billy Sheehan would say that if you have hard enough fingertips and you’ve got your bass and amp set up in the right way, it’ll sound just as twangy and clanky if that’s what you want. But it’s got to be what suits for the music. I used to be much more narrow-minded in a way. I liked certain kinds of bass sounds and I hated others, but now I can see that stuff that I didn’t like before is not so bad, but because I’ve played with my fingers for so long I feel much more like a beginner if I play with a pick – it’s just not natural to me. I don’t hate it whereas 20 years ago I’d have said I hate that kind of stuff. People have said to me “Why don’t you play more like Phil Lynott” and I’m thinking “I don’t want to, I want to play like me”.
You rejoined the band for the remix of Slide It In. Was this a rejuvenated Whitesnake?
Yes, that’s about it. Obviously John Sykes had a lot to do with that, but the whole thing was quite complicated… David got Mel Galley involved and they did come up with some good songs, but really Mel was not that different to Bernie and Micky, it was fairly 70’s orientated what with coming from Trapeze and all that. Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t particularly different. They were having to go out and promote Saints & Sinners, but the style of music wasn’t much of a change on Slide It In than what it was before. David was under a lot of pressure to change the music and change the line-up to be successful in America and he wanted to do that, but he used to be dead set against all the things that he finally did. Musically he’s very conservative in some ways and then finally when he changes, he totally changes and he disowns the past. Bernie would be quite into American AOR and stuff and David would say “Oh, that’s rubbish, I hate Journey and I hate Foreigner” or whatever it was and then a few years later and he’s jumped over that way completely. But it was the same thing from 78 to 83, the original classic line-up was starting to be a bit repetitive writing the same kind of songs and there wasn’t very much new that could be done in that style, so even for me it was getting a bit boring. You kind of knew what the songs were going to sound like. So it did needed some new blood.
The annoying thing though is that for every change David Coverdale makes, the past means nothing.
Yes, but eventually he realises that maybe the past wasn’t so bad after all. It was really funny to me a couple of years ago when he played the farewell tour, The Last Hurrah in London, and in between every song he’d be having a singalong with the audience of all these old, early Whitesnake songs and the band were like “What song is this, I don’t know this!” But that’s what he seemed to enjoy the most, singing Would I Lie To You or something like Love To Keep You Warm, etc.
He wants to be successful and rich and popular so he’s not going to play songs that the majority of the audience doesn’t really know, but it’s a tricky situation. I don’t know what his plans are or what’s the best thing for him to do, but I think he’s sort of rather stuck in his late 80’s style, at least at the moment.
Do you think this has got anything to do with the business people he surrounds himself with?
Oh yeah, definitely. But also just being in America makes you think in a particular way. If you’ve had huge success with one kind of thing and what went before that meant nothing or very little in America then they’re not going to say “Oh, you should go back to what you were doing before” because they only know him as being a mega rock star with Adrian Vandenberg, etc, etc. He’s allowed himself to be categorised as a sort of quintessential 80’s hair band. This was a big mistake and it’s very hard for him to get out of that, because the very important audience in America only know him as that. So if he came out with the old line-up most of the fans in America would be going “What’s this? I don’t want this”. The 1987 Whitesnake were only big for a year or two in the States and it is a pretty fickle market.
Do you think that line-up would mean a lot to the Americans now?
No. But I don’t think David’s got a strong enough idea of what he wants to do in terms of anything different from that and he hasn’t got anybody around him who’s saying “Right, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna put you together with so and so…”But it’s difficult, because I want him to produce good music and be successful and stuff, but on the other hand there are times where I think “Well, I told you so! You’re so quick to ditch everybody and be desperate for platinum albums and so on, but then after all that’s finished what are you left with?” But you know – I don’t stay awake at night worrying about what David’s getting up to and he certainly doesn’t think about me, I’m sure.
It’s just a shame that we think about rock music as being really important, but I guess to millions and millions of people it’s not very important. Not in the way that we’d like it to be. It’s just something they were into when they were 17 years old and then 20 years later it’s like “Oh yeah, I’d quite like to hear that band again”, which is why all these people get back together again but the problem with the classic blues Whitesnake was that they were never enormously huge. They were reasonably popular, but then rock music in general was much more popular then. You’d have Rainbow having hit singles and Whitesnake having hit singles, but you don’t generally get rock music in the charts anymore. So even if we all got back together again and even if you gave it lots of publicity, we’d still only be playing 1500 seaters, 2000 seaters for a couple of months around Europe and a week in Japan maybe, that’d be it.
You don’t think it would last?
Maybe not, and you know where Deep Purple have to go to play to make money, which is fair enough. That’s where Brian May really ought to be playing – Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, South America and all those places because it’s like either the audience has seen enough old rock or they can’t be bothered to leave their homes because they’ve got their satellite TV and so on. But if you try too hard to be young and fashionable then you’ve definitely lost it. Of course if you’ve had a lot of success you don’t want to come down from that. It’s very hard to accept playing in little clubs from playing in stadiums. But I think what people tend to forget is that if the music isn’t happening, if you’re not enjoying the music, then the rest of it isn’t terribly important anyway, particularly as you get older. When we were going around late 70’s early 80’s of course we were getting up to all sorts of rock and roll adventures. There were lots of girls around and late nights and it was all exciting and you knew that you were doing something that was genuinely popular. There would be fans outside the hotel. When you take all that away there’s got to be something left and either you’re making lots of money out of it, which is kind of doubtful in most cases, or you’re really enjoying the music.
On the one hand I’ve never been hired by a band where it was being put together just to make money, but I’ve also never had to do something which was like “Oh God, I can’t stand working with these guys and I hate this music, but I’m gonna do it anyway just because it’s gonna bring me 100,000 pounds.” And I think sometimes Bernie is much too over-optimistic when he thinks that if David got back with us guys, suddenly everybody would be really interested… Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I think too many years have gone past. Whitesnake were never that big for there to really be an enormous audience of people of whom a small percentage would want to go and see them again. Compared to say someone like the Police. If they got back together again there’s a much larger amount of people that were originally into the band. And if you say that five percent of those people would want to go and see the reformed Police again, that’s still a large amount of people. But five percent of the amount of people who were originally into Whitesnake is a much smaller amount, plus the heavier the music the less people are gonna want to go out when they’re 40 or 50 years old and subject their ears to it. If you’re doing something that’s had a lot of hit singles – it might have been a rock band, but if you had a lot of hit singles in the charts then you’re almost like a pop band and Whitesnake were never really like that – then people will want to go and see a band that reminds them of their youth which is all very well. I’m not saying that it would be a disaster but we wouldn’t be playing stadiums, no way.
Collectively you’ve got the talent to do something new.
You’d probably have to reinvent the band. Yes, but it’s so difficult because everybody gets used to having much more of their own way. Being in a band is such a compromise. Sometimes you get a lot of good things out of conflict between people, it spurs you on to do things. But once that conflict gets too much and you’ve split up it’s very hard to go back to how it used to be. Because David definitely is very used to having his own way and Bernie and Micky have been used to having their own band – their rhythm section was just being picked up and dropped of really and they do what Bernie and Micky want them to do – it’s difficult for them to be in a democratic situation again. For example I have a lot more say in what’s going on with this band, whereas if I was playing in the Moody-Marsden Band I would to some extent have less say in what goes on because when we originally made the music, I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do most of the time. If we were writing those songs now, they would be much more strict “I want you to play this and I want you to play that.” And maybe I would be playing differently anyway, because at that age I was quite determined and especially coming from jazz-rock music I was like “Oh, I want to play some interesting bass parts and I want to be heard” and then luckily Martin Birch had me up loud in the mix. There’s other things I’ve done since then where I know I haven’t had that freedom to do my own thing or the bass is really quiet so even if I had done something good you can’t hear it. Or the music doesn’t lend itself to that style of playing. If a song only has a couple of chords in it it’s very difficult to put anything melodic into it, any moving bass parts. And certainly in the 80’s the rock music in general was more straight ahead without much rhythmic interest.
Bernie says that he is just a blues player, but that if you’d wanted to you could’ve gone and played with Chick Corea…
I couldn’t, but it’s nice of him to say that. He’s probably referring to a period back in the late 70’s when I was much more into it. I’m not really into it now. I can listen to it a few times, but if you actually got me to play in some of these jazz-rock type situations I wouldn’t be very good at it because I haven’t done it for so long. But really when I was doing more jazzy stuff in the 70’s I wasn’t that good at it anyway. I was just lucky to have got in with certain musicians who played more in that style. Colosseum II still played jazz-rock, it wasn’t jazz. If you listen to the complexity and the subtlety and the purity of what Chick Corea plays and then listen to Colosseum II, it’s worlds apart. It’s the difference between being jazz-influenced and actual jazz. I just don’t have that ability and if I had been interested in doing that, then I would have made the choice to stay in that kind of music before I joined Whitesnake. The reason that I did join Whitesnake was that it was much more towards my roots from the blues boom in the 60’s and a few other influences that had nothing to do with jazz. I wasn’t enough into the jazz side of it. Even Don (Airey) who has the ability to play jazz doesn’t have the desire to purely be a jazz musician. You have to really really love it and live it.