Interview With MICK BOX (URIAH HEEP)

Mick Box

Uriah Heep have just released Wake The Sleeper, their first album of new material in 10 years. Mick Burgess caught up with an enthusiastic Mick Box to chat about the album and Heep’s touring plans.

First of all, congratulations on the release of your new album Wake The Sleeper. You must be delighted with how it turned out?

We’re delighted with the response it’s been getting. In fact we’re just delighted that we’ve finally got one out in the end. It’s taken forever.

You’ve been getting so many positive reviews too, even nominated for Classic Rock magazines album of the year award. Does this vindicate all of the hard work that’s gone into making this record?

We’re scared the bubble will burst. Ha!! It’s very unnerving getting all this praise. We’ve had accolades all across the world. They’re coming in thick and fast from Australia, Japan, America and Canada as well as from all over Europe. The response has been wonderful so we’re back in the driving seat again. Classic Rock magazine gave us a lot of support over the album so it’s great to get that nomination. It’s a really positive sign.

It’s been 10 years since your last studio album Sonic Origami. That’s quite a gap between albums. Why such a long wait to release new material?

Well there’s a simple explanation really if you look at the state of the recording industry. When we released Sonic Origami, the fans loved it, the record company loved it and the media loved it. We put an 18 month tour plan together to promote it and we went all over the world and played in 53 countries but unfortunately the record company, Eagle Records, didn’t support it. We came back totally disillusioned and we said that we weren’t going to give them another album as they’d just wasted 18 months of our lives basically. It wasn’t fair to treat people like that. In the end it took us a year or two to get out of the contract with all the legal wrangling that goes on with these things and when we were all ready to do another album and find another home the Internet explosion happened.

The record industry initially attacked the Internet and took Napster to court and tried police it but it was too late as there were a million Napsters to take their place. In the end the recording industry had to embrace the Internet and by the time they got round to doing that, everything was in freefall and the music industry would never be the same again. The record companies got smaller or disappeared, lots of firings and very few hiring’s and record companies amalgamated and there was a really uncertain situation so we couldn’t find a new home to go to.

What we did instead was we did our best and went out and played and released a load of DVDs which hadn’t been in the market place before. We also had Sanctuary release a 30th Anniversary boxed set. We had a lot of stuff out in the market. We did a lot of acoustic shows with guests like Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull and Thijs van Leer from Focus and we did The Magicians Birthday thing in London every year so we were quite active but we just didn’t have any new material.

The album was actually ready for release for quite some time before it eventually came out. Was this due to record label problems?

Sanctuary Records who are a back catalogue specialist said they wanted to start a front line label with us as the first band for new material so we thought fantastic. We went off and recorded Wake The Sleeper brought it back to the label and they loved it. We couldn’t wait for the fans to hear it. Just as they were giving us release dates they got taken over by Universal. Although we were part of the takeover it didn’t necessarily mean that they would want to work it so we had to wait a year while Universal decided whether they wanted to work it. A lot of Sanctuary people were fired and a lot of changes happened and we were right in the middle of that. We spent a year telling fans it would be coming out soon, it was nail biting times. I don’t think my nails will ever grow again. What frightened us with Universal is that they weren’t really a Rock label so we couldn’t see where we’d actually fit in but the good thing about it, and the first sign that we thought they liked it, was when they first heard it and said they loved it and were actually going to actively work it. In the end everything was fine but it wasn’t without plenty of heartache.

How did you start pulling together ideas for the album?

The first thing we did as writers, I actually write every day, is to stockpile ideas on a little Sony Walkman and listen back to the ideas and see if there’s anything worth working on and I’ll take that onto the computer and work it up. Phil Lanzon and I then looked at the ideas, I think we kept one part which was the musical part of “Ghost Of The Ocean” and we looked at the other ideas and we just said “Look, let’s stop this and let’s start writing afresh!!” and basically most of the album was written two weeks before we went into rehearsals so it was all fresh and totally new. That was the way to go. Having Russ in the band brought a new energy and we thought we’d just go with that impetus.

Did that put any extra pressure on you?

No, not really. We decided that’s what we were going to do and we could always fall back onto the old ideas if we needed too, which we didn’t as it turns out. We may use some of those ideas further down the line at some point but we wanted the fresh approach this time.

How do you and Phil work together when you write?

We do everything together, all of the vocal and melody lines, the lyrics, everything. We never go away and work on a bit ourselves, we just do it together and often over the phone to each other too. We write very well and are very fluid together. I enjoy the writing process. When you bring your ideas to the band how do you present them to the other members? Do you have demos with guide vocals to give Bernie an idea of the melody?

We try not to go that route because you’ll end up establishing things in people’s minds which you don’t really want; we want them to bring their own ideas to the table. Normally, we sit down and play the song with just the guitar and Hammond organ with some of the melody and lyric ideas and everyone puts their input into the basic idea. If you spend lots of time doing a demo the others could poo poo that in two seconds so we don’t use that approach.

With bands such as Kiss stating that they don’t intend to record new material anymore preferring instead to turn into a heritage or nostalgia act, how important is it to you as an artist to remain creative and write new songs?

The last thing we want to do is do the nostalgia circuit. We steer away from it. We get asked to do some of those festivals and it’s not the place for us, we’re too forward thinking. We just don’t want to go down that road.

It sounds as if you’ve really worked on giving the fans exactly what they want from Uriah Heep. Songs like “Overload” really do hit the mark with all of your trademarks such as the driving riff, strong melody, great harmony vocals, a rousing Hammond organ solo and of course some great wah wah guitar solos from yourself. Did you sit down with the intention on producing a classic sounding Heep release?

We do that certainly when we’re recording and we try to put all of the identities that we’ve got as a band which are Hammond organ, Wah-Wah guitar and five-part harmony vocals as we’ve got five singers in the band. I have to give a lot of credit to our Producer, Mike Paxton who came down to rehearsals and he heard the power of the band on the songs and he said this is what we’ve got to record as this was what people want to hear but we had to record as a band. We didn’t want to do it piecemeal where we spent 2 weeks laying down the drums and bass then a week on the guitars and keyboards and then do the vocals. That’s just not what this band is about. He was instrumental in bringing that to the table. We found a studio, Chapel Studios, which is an old converted church and put all our gear in there. We rehearsed until we were really happy with it and pressed “record”. After two or three takes, we had the take that we wanted. That was brilliant doing it as a band and that brought a freshness to the music.

Over the years you’ve had a few members through the ranks of Uriah Heep but since the mid ’80’s your line up has been very settled until Lee Kerslake left last year for health reasons. How is he doing at the moment?

He’s doing great now; in fact I think a great weight has been lifted off his shoulders now. We were looking at quite an extensive year with a new album and tour and I don’t think he was really up to it health wise so it was great that he could take the time off and get himself together and we said that if you haven’t got your health you haven’t got anything and that’s proved to be true now. We’re great mates and I ring him up nearly every week and we have a great laugh. We’re mates before anything else and we’ll always remain mates. It’s good to see him doing really well now.

Is the door open for him to come back at some point in the future or is it time to move forward with someone else?

No, we don’t want to go down that road now; we’re looking forward not backwards.

Losing someone like Lee who was not just a drummer but also a good vocalist and songwriter too as well as a big personality in the band left a large pair of shoes to fill. How did you come across your new drummer, Russell Gilbrook?

It was certainly very difficult to replace him. What we didn’t want to do was to find a clone and a lot of people who came along tried to be a clone of Lee. They didn’t bring anything different to the table. The great thing with Russell is that he had a great deal of energy and he’d learned everything and he can sing. He doesn’t sing the same low ends as Lee but we moved the harmonies around and we got it. He’s very musical and actually teaches the drums at Brighton College and does drum clinics up and down the country. He reads music and plays keyboards and knows the harmony stuff and he’s fitted in perfectly. The other great thing about Uriah Heep was that we do need to have the right personalities in place and he’s fitted in there perfectly as well.

He did a drum clinic up in Hull where Trevor lives and Trevor went to see him and thought he was phenomenal. They exchanged numbers as you do and it was two or three years before he came to audition for us. We’d already done about 240 applicants and got that down to a dozen and we just set the auditions and it just so happened that Russ lost his mobile phone and he had a new number. He just called Trevor to give him the new number and he asked Trevor what he was up to. Trevor told him that Lee had just come off the road and that we were looking for a new drummer. Russ said he’d love to have a go as his first love was to always be in a Rock band. We told him we had a slot at the end of the day and told him the three songs to learn which were “Between Two Worlds”, “Easy Livin’” and “July Morning”. He came down and up until then we’d had a really rough time as we just couldn’t find anyone suitable. There were some that said they could sing, couldn’t sing a note; those that said they could play the songs back to front, could hardly get through and plenty who sounded like B-Team Lee. It was kind of frustrating.

What was it like in the audition when Russell came along?

Russ came in and set his kit up and nailed it. Not only did he do the three songs he was saying “What about “Gypsy”, what about this and what about that??” We played then and we could have gone out and done half a set that night, that’s how professional he was. We then sat down round the organ and did a few harmonies and we said that it was working, it was great. In the end he was the last one in and we’re so thankful he came. It looked like it would be a year long haul to find someone but luckily Russ came along. Maybe it was one of those things that was just meant to be. You just knew it was right. When the other guys had been in and played it was like “Well, errr, great thanks, bye” but when Russ played we just knew he was right. Even the crew who’d been sitting there for three days all stood up and applauded and we knew we’d got him. Even Mike Paxton who was there said Russ had taken his breath away.

Mike Paxman produced Wake The Sleeper. What did he bring to Uriah Heep?

What was great about Mike is that he used his ears. That might seem a weird thing to say but most Producers once you’ve chosen the take that makes your hairs stand up on your arms, they spend the next five hours perfecting it on ProTools and they finish it to perfection and lose all the magic. Mike’s view is that if listening to it makes the hairs on his arms stand up then it’ll do that in 10 or 20 years and it doesn’t need tinkering with. When we were recording the songs, Mike wasn’t in the control room reading magazines; he was in the middle of the room just lapping it up.

How did you end up deciding to use Mike?

It was through the management really as he’s worked with Status Quo in the past and we have the same management as Status Quo. He was fantastic and really into it in a big way. I’ll certainly be happy to work with him again and I want to do the next one with him.

Bearing in mind the vast experience you’ve had at writing and recording did you consider producing yourself or do you prefer to work with a producer from outside of the band?

No, no !! I always like to have an independent pair of ears. If you do it yourself you don’t get the best out of yourself. The great thing about Mike is that he got the best out of every single one of us. He stretched us to get the best out of us. I think if you do it yourself you tend to stay within in your safety zone. He takes you outside of that and that’s great.

You’ve used artist Ioannis to do the artwork for the album. He’s worked with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and BOC in the past. Was that your idea to use him or your labels?

A mate of mine that works for Classic Rock Revisited website said that he had a friend called Ioannis who’d be interested in doing the cover. It’s funny because at the same time I was reading a copy of Record Collector magazine and there was an interview with Ioannis which featured his covers. In the last paragraph it said that he’d done so many great album covers for so many great bands and asked him if there was anyone he’d like to work with and he said he’d like to work with Uriah Heep. I got in touch with him and that was it. We gave him the idea of “Wake The Sleeper” and he came up with the female Buddha waking up from meditation and in her hand is enlightenment. It came together very quickly and it looks really cool.

Your album launch party in German was rather different to the usual industry party. You played at Rottenerg Prison. Why did you choose a prison for the launch?

It was a good opportunity really, if you do something like that you get a lot of press. To be honest, we were doing the Rock of Ages festival the day after and the warden got hold of our management and asked if we’d be interested in playing. Logistically it would work as all of our equipment would get there in time and we said we’d come up and do the show. It was unbelievable. The first thing you learn is don’t get banged up as it’s not very nice in there. It was a really cool show though. You couldn’t go in there thinking that everyone were Uriah Heep fans but in the end everybody was screaming and shouting and it was a great afternoon. One of the big songs which we had in Germany from the Innocent Victim album… what a title??, was “Free Me”. We said that we hoped that they had a good sense of humour and announced it and a lot of them knew it. There were wardens standing next to inmates shouting “Free Me”, and that’s the power of music. That’s indelible on my brain at the moment, I just can’t get that image out of my head. It was very surreal. You know Bernie even changed the lyrics from “Free me from myself” to “Free me from my cell !!” Ha!! They all screamed at that. There was a lot of press there too so it was a unique way of promoting the album. The day after we played at The Rock of Ages festival to thousands of Heep fans and that was a great way to end the weekend.

You have built your reputation as a band on being a great live band. You’ll be hitting the road in the UK in November for 6 shows starting on 16th in Cambridge and ending on 23rd at the Astoria in London. Are you looking forward to playing in the UK again?

That’s right we play in London, Cambridge, Manchester, Glasgow and a couple around York. We start out in Germany with Thin Lizzy supporting us then we go out on our own through the Czech Republic, Poland, Holland, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Finland and all that. We said that we’d really like to build up the UK market as it’s sadly lacking in our curriculum. In the old days we’d be touring for 9 months of the year and we’d come home to England and we’d come home to be home and didn’t really want to go of out to work again. Now we’re looking to the UK to be a viable market so we’re testing the water but we definitely want to be increasing the number of shows we play in the UK every year.

Will you be adding any additional dates to the UK tour or are the 6 shows all that’s planned so far?

It’s pretty much fixed as we have a few days off at the end of a six tour then we go over to the Czech Republic and India in mid December and to America in January. If we can test the water with this and it works well, we’re working to an 18 month tour plan here, then we’d like to come back to the UK and play more shows, that’d be fantastic.

Will you be playing much of your new album?

Oh, absolutely yes, that’s the whole idea to promote the new album but then again we are aware that nostalgia is a very powerful drug and people love hearing the old songs so we’ll still be doing “Gypsy”, “Easy Livin’” and “July Morning” and stuff like that but it’ll be a good balanced show.

Over the years you’ve played in places that few other bands have tread. You were the first Western Rock band to play in Russia and more recently you played in India. Have you any unusual countries to play in on your forthcoming tour?

We haven’t been to Egypt yet but I’m not sure if there’s a Uriah Heep audience out there or in China indeed. There’s a few places I’d like to go to but we have a hard enough job getting around the 53 or so countries we play in already.

Over the last couple of years there have been some great package tours such as Whitesnake/Def Leppard, Alice Cooper/Motorhead and Joan Jett and Scorpions and Judas Priest. The last time you toured the UK you played with Asia. Do you think that this the future of the live circuit ?

That’s absolutely great. If you look back in the old days that’s how everybody used to go out. I think it’s great value for money for the fans too. We’ve done lots of tours with Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and Whitesnake. They ‘re a lot of fun for us and the fans too.

Is there anyone you’d like to go out on the road with?

I don’t really know. A lot of it is down to availability, being available when you’re available.

Your tour will take you to the end of the year and into 2009 which just happens to be your 40th anniversary have you any plans to celebrate it yet or are you still in the planning stage?

I think we’ve got two years to go. I think at the moment our focus is on the promotion of Wake The Sleeper but I’m sure we’ll get round to doing something special but it’s too far ahead for the moment. I’m sure the promo people will go mad and will release 40th anniversary this and 40th anniversary that but we will do something to mark our 40 years.

How do you retain your enthusiasm at answering an endless stream of questions from journalists who all ask more or less the same questions?

I still have the passion and energy that I had when I was young, it’s never left me. To be honest this is the best job in the world. I’m doing something that I love and making it my career and traveling all over the world, it’s not a bad place to be is it? I’ve been blessed to be able to do this. That’s why I’m always smiling. It never ceases to amaze me every day that I’m still doing it. It’s funny, I was talking to a guitar magazine and they asked that as I’d come from the scene in the ’60’s and 70’s was I into the Blues and I said that I started on Jazz guitar and I went straight to Rock. They said “what !! You didn’t do any Blues?” and I just said no, I was too happy to play the Blues, I was having the time of my life, jetting round America in Lear jets with bodyguards and all that, I couldn’t get into the Blues thing at all.

Looking to the future do you see a time when you will call it a day or would you like to continue for as long as you still enjoy playing music?

We don’t look at that, we don’t look at an end, we just look at what we’re doing and keep playing it. I think generally the business retires you, you don’t retire from the business. If you don’t have anyone to play to then it’s time to pack it in. Fortunately I don’t think we’re anywhere near that yet, in fact we’re looking to increasing it and doing more and more work. We’re really up for it, we’re excited about the album and that we can go out and play it live. We’re going to really enjoy every moment.

To round things off you’re going to be pretty much on the road for whole of the next year and half?

That’s right we’ll be concentrating on promoting the album. We’ve got a lot of places to go. We’re going to try to break America once again. We’ve been getting great reviews from over there and we’d also like to get over to Brazil and Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and India and Malaysia. We’re just traveling the world and enjoying doing it.

For more of Uriah Heep visit Uriah Heep’s Official Web site


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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