BUCK DHARMA (BLUE ÖYSTER CULT): “We Couldn’t Have Done This Record Without RICHIE. As Far As Introducing RICHIE As A Feature Player In BLUE ÖYSTER CULT, I Feel A Little Like Obi Wan Kenobi”

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT (Live at The O2 Academy, Newcastle, U.K., February 23, 2019)
Photo: Mick Burgess

It’s been almost 19 years since their last studio album but now Blue Öyster Cult have returned to lift the Covid induced gloom with The Symbol Remains, an album that can stand proudly alongside their very best from their 50-year career. Mick Burgess called up guitarist/vocalist Buck Dharma to talk about the making of the album.

2020 has turned out to be a strange year for everyone. How has Covid-19 been affecting you?

It’s changed everybody’s life. We’re not touring at the moment with a couple of exceptions. It’s the longest we haven’t toured since 1985.

Did it give you time to get your album finished earlier than you’d intended?

It gave us a little more time to get it done but it did make the work a little more complicated. Covid didn’t stop us doing the album but it was something of an impediment and it took us longer to mix the record. We were working on that with Tom Lord-Alge is Miami. We would still have done all of that but Covid was like molasses in the process.

Talking of your new album, The Symbol Remains, came out just a couple of weeks ago. Are you pleased with the reaction you’ve received so far?

I’m very gratified with all of the great reviews and I would agree with them..Ha!! It’s nice to see that it’s exceeded everybody’s expectations. I’m very happy about that. We don’t really expect to make money selling records these days. The album is selling well in today’s terms but compared to the old days it’s not that many units. Streaming is just beginning to ramp up but we’re competing against new artists who stream millions and millions of times so in those terms were charted at 192 but on the Billboard chart, in terms of physical sales, we were number 12 which is pretty good.

A few years ago, in an interview with Eric, he said that the world wasn’t waiting for a new BOC record. What has changed your mind to make you want to do a new studio album?

We privately wanted to do a new record especially with Richie, Jules and Danny, the band is so damned good, to not record it would be just a shame. To do that we had to find a record deal with a budget to do it right. It took us a while to negotiate the deal with Frontiers, which we are very happy with. They’ve done a very nice job so far.

They’ve also been releasing a series of live albums over the last few months from relatively recent shows. Do you have any plans to release any live shows from the ’70s or 80s?

I’m not sure what else we have left to offer. Part of the Frontiers deal was to release the shows that we had the rights to so we did that and the new record was going to be the centre piece.

When did you actually start work on the record?

Some of my songs were already written a few years ago but we wrote and rehearsed in 2019 in the summertime around tour dates. We purposely blocked out some weeks where we could all get together. I don’t live near the other band members so I had to go to New York and stay in a hotel while we were working on rehearsals. We then tracked the record, the drums, bass and guitars in the Fall and winter. We did three sessions in September, October and December. We used a lot of the guitars and bass from those sessions such as on “Nightmare Epiphany” and “Secret Road”, those jamming solos at the end were as they were recorded in one take. We didn’t go back and overdub them.

Your 50-year legacy hangs proudly above you, did that put pressure on you to live up to that?

That was the criteria for us to make a record at all. We knew it would be judged against the legacy material so we set a very high bar for ourselves.

How did you start the creative process? Were you sitting around discussing the sort of direction you wanted to go in or did you all already have ideas to bring to those early sessions?

The songs that I wrote with John Shirley were pretty much done by myself until I brought them to the band and they’d burnish the arrangement. The same with Richie. Then Richie and Eric got together to write the songs that they did. Historically Eric and I would get together and write songs but Richie and Eric live in proximity to each other. Richie’s talent is something that we’re grateful for on this record because he really figures highly in the composition and performance. Eric and Richie wrote some great stuff together.

You’ve co-written 6 of the 14 songs on the album and most of those with Science Fiction novelist Jon Shirley, who you have worked with since you did the Bad Channels Soundtrack in 1992. How did you first connect with John?

I think Sandy Pearlman put John in touch with us when he still had his studio in San Rafael, California. Sandy wasn’t writing with us at that point and was just working as a record producer. John is very prolific and he sends us stuff all the time.

When you are writing, does he come up with lyrical ideas for you to put music to or do you discuss concepts and then he writes lyrics around that?

As a rule, John sends lyrics and I might ask for revisions or I might revise it myself and he’s OK with that. For “Florida Man” I commissioned him to write that. We wrote the lyrics together and I had the idea for Florida Man and he had the idea of the Seminole curse. We created that together over the phone and by emails. That is atypical. Usually we get a submission from John and we either use it or not. We all get the lyrics but the ones that Richie and Eric wrote are ones where I didn’t think I could do a good job on but obviously they did. That is typical of us. We’ll both get lyrics from John and we’ll decide who does what.

You got off to a flying start as you already had a few songs written ahead of the writing sessions?

Three of the songs I had written previously, “Nightmare Epiphany”, “Secret Road” and “Fight” were written at different time period after the last record. I wrote the lyrics for “Fight” with my neighbour and a friend of his, Ira Rosoff and James Wold. Ira was a singer songwriter and he’s made a solo record and had lived in Nashville for a while but we wrote that one when we lived in Florida.

“Nightmare Epiphany” and “Secret Road”, appeared on Volume 3 of your Archive Series that you put out a fair few years ago. What was the origin of those songs?

They were written from lyrics I got from John and I demoed them but didn’t release them professionally other than on the Archive Series. They were songs that happened after Curse Of The Hidden Mirror. They were written and arranged pretty much how I always work. The most recent Shirley songs were “Florida Man” and “Box In My Head” which I wrote in the spring of 2019 and it was the same basic process.

Do you ever wonder why it took 19 years between records when you had such good songs close at hand that just needed the BOC treatment?

You know, I’m not really that ambitious to get them released. I was content to sit on them and I thought maybe we’d make a record someday and I tend to write Pop songs that aren’t always suited to Blue Öyster Cult and I think we were pushing the boundaries a little bit on this one about what is or isn’t a Blue Öyster Cult song. I just figured that the public would just have to get used to what we are. You have the Eric Bloom songs, now you have the Richie songs and you also have the Buck songs. They are all there and that’s who we are.

You also co-wrote a song with your son. That must be a proud moment for you?

“Train True (Lennie’s Song)” was written with my son Zeke and it was basically his song, which is one reason it doesn’t really sound like a Blue Öyster Cult song. He just wrote the song as a song not thinking it was going to wind up on a BOC record. My son is actually an attorney in Washington DC. He grew up with instruments lying around and he plays guitar. We worked together on the song as a father and son thing and that was very gratifying. He had the song in his head since he was a college student and now, he’s a father of three kids and almost middle aged but he finally got it out and written.

“Florida Man” is the tale of an old Seminole curse on the Conquistadors and their future relatives. What was the inspiration behind that story?

Everybody knows about the Florida Man and the Florida Man’s antics. There’s always news stories where somebody in Florida does something totally outrageous, crazy or foolish so I thought it’d be fun to ascribe the reason for this to a curse that was put on the first European settlers who came to Florida. I think most of the Florida Man antics that you read about are not Native people but those who came from other States and initially those who came from Europe.

“Box In My head” is another one of your songs. What is this one saying?

It’s a fellow presenting himself as mysterious to a woman he wants to impress. When I read the lyric, I thought a Power Pop track would be the best way to express the sentiment in the lyric.

Eric brought three of the heavier songs to the album including album opener “That Was Me”. Was it important to make such a bold impact right from the start?

“That Was Me” was one of the later songs brought into the rehearsal process. Eric and Richie had actually worked on the song three years ago and he’d forgotten about it. Eric found the lyrics and said to Richie that they should work on it and Richie said “Eric, we did this already”. Richie got up the computer session and they had the basic song written except for the bridge so they wrote the Reggae bridge section and when we had recorded it, it was obvious that it should be the lead off cut.

Your original drummer Albert Bouchard, makes a cameo appearance on cowbell, percussion and backing vocals. How did it feel having him on a BOC record again?

It was great. Richie invited him to put the cowbell down and some backing vocals. Richie sent him the track and Albert added his parts. This was during Covid so he did that at his home studio. When we did the video, we got Albert to come down to play with the band and that was a lot of fun.

Did you ask Joe Bouchard if he wanted to be involved?

We didn’t ask Joe this time but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t in the future. His new album sounds really good.

You’ve actually been working together with Albert on the Don Falcone’s, Spirits Burning album based on a Michael Moorcock story?

Albert approached me a couple of years ago about working together on that. I did some stuff for the first record and now I’ve done some stuff for the second record which is coming out in December. There’s also plans for a third album that I’ll be involved in with Albert and a whole bunch of people.

Richie Castellano really makes an impact on the album from writing, performing, singing and producing. How important has Richie been in getting this album made?

We couldn’t have done this record without Richie. As far as introducing Richie as a feature player in Blue Öyster Cult, I think it’s great. I feel a little like Obi Wan Kenobi. Eric and I are senior citizens now, Richie is no kid any more but it’s about time he achieved the recognition he deserves.

You must be pleased that after Richie and Jules have been in the band so long that they have now been captured on an album?

We really love these guys and the band is just so good. Everybody just put their heart and soul into the performances. It’s so gratifying that they are getting the recognition and approval. I think a big reason the band sounds as muscular as it does is the ages of Richie, Jules and Danny compared to Eric and I, even though we can still bring it when we have to.

Richie worked with long-time BOC collaborator Richard Meltzer who goes right back to “Stairway To The Stars” on your very first album, in fact even back to your Stalk Forrest Group days. How come he worked with Richie and not you or Eric?

We invited Richard to submit some new lyrics for the record and when he submitted “The return Of St. Cecilia” Richie just grabbed it and when we heard what he came up with we thought it was great and wanted to do it. Richie beat Eric and I to writing the song and not only that we loved what he did with it.

“The Return Of St Cecilia” nods back to the Stalk Forrest Groups days. What is the St Cecilia story about?

I can’t speak for Richard but I imagine his concept was he was answering Sandy Pearlman’s St. Cecilia with his own take on St Cecilia character, who was the patron saint of music and Richard casts her as a delinquent street person. Beyond that I can only guess.

Musically the whole album covers a lot of ground and a lot of different elements of BOC’s past where the likes of “The Alchemist” harks back to your early days of “Flaming Telepaths” while “Fight” has the feel of a “Harvest Moon” from Heaven Forbid. Were you looking to reference some of those classic elements of BOC during the writing process or is this just how it turned out?

I don’t think it was quite a conscious decision but afterwards we noticed there were markers from various parts of the band’s career. It wasn’t apparent to us until we put the songs all together. I think the songs are deep and there’s a lot of layers in there that reveal themselves on subsequent listens. We worked really hard on this and I think the range of material is a virtue. I’ve read some criticism where it says that the record isn’t just one style or another but I think that’s a virtue. There’s 14 songs on the album and it’s a lot to ask someone to sit through an hour of anybody’s music but on the other hand we couldn’t in good conscience leave any of these songs off. We wanted to put them all on which we did. You can almost think of The Symbol Remains as a playlist beyond the fact that it’s all Blue Öyster Cult. You’re getting a big variety of styles and sounds.

Has the experience of making this record fired you up again so there will be no 19 year wait for the next one?

I think we could stop but we’ll see how the reception is like and what the sales are and whether we can tour. We’ll see what happens. I would say that there is no reason why we wouldn’t make another record. It was a lot of work for us to do this and we don’t live in the same area so it means a lot of travel and disruption to do the project but I wouldn’t rule out another recording but if Symbol is our last record, I think we could stop happily.

Sandy Pearlman was such a central figure to BOC during your career and he sadly died in 2016. Did you speak to him about recording a new album before you started on this?

We did speak to Sandy and it was our intention to ask him to submit material for the album but it wasn’t to be. We hadn’t seen him for many years and then he started coming to our shows when we played in Santa Cruz in California so we were in contact with him but it’s too bad that we weren’t able to do anything together.

You’ve made life difficult for yourself when you hit the road choosing your setlist as there’s a fair few that you could do. How many do you think you’ll do from the new album?

I’d imagine we’ll probably do four or five depending on how many people know the new record. The wider that the record gets popularised the more we’ll do from it. We’ll probably do “That Was Me” and I’d like to do “Florida Man” and “Train True”. I think Richie will want to do “Tainted Blood”. There’ll probably be a lot of pressure to do “The Alchemist” so we’ll see how we can do that one live. We may do Jules ‘s song “There’s A Crime”. We could do “Secret Road” and “St Cecilia” too, so that’s almost the whole album. We’ll probably do two of Richie’s songs to give us a break from vocals in the live show.

Next year you’ll be touring with Deep Purple and also returning to Newcastle City Hall for a headline show. Are you looking forward to coming back over to the UK?

We can’t wait. It such a shame that we aren’t there now. It’s going to be great to play with Deep Purple. We’ve done a few shows together over the years. We get along famously. We really admire each other. I’m looking forward to it. We’ll only play for about an hour but we’ll be giving it 100% and it’ll be great going back to Newcastle City Hall as well to play a headline show where we’ll be able to stretch out a little bit and play more songs. I’ve got some fond memories of that place.

Now that your album is out, is that you putting your feet up for a while or are you working on anything else, a new solo album perhaps?

I have nothing where there’s a time schedule or a deadline at the moment but I will still be doing stuff. I’ll be doing some more promotional stuff for the record and I’m going to enjoy some time off for a change. I’m going travel and see some family that I haven’t seen for a while. I am doing some small side things but I won’t go into that just yet.

The Symbol Remains is out now on Frontiers.

See blueöystercult.com and frontiers.it for more information.

Interview and Photos By Mick Burgess


  • 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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