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Rick Wartell of Trouble

Back in the mid '80s, vintage sounds were all but dead within the realm of heavy metal, as it seemed like every single band (both veteran acts and brand new ones) were embracing squeaky clean production, Floyd Rose tremolos, canon-sounding drums timed to a click track, and other generics.

Thankfully, there were underground headbangers such as Trouble, who never forgot the charm of Black Sabbath's early '70s classics and used it as a template for their own sound, creating such cult favorites as 1984's Psalm 9 and 1985's The Skull in the process.

Longtime Trouble guitarist Rick Wartell took some time out to discuss the group's latest release, The Distortion Field, and cover a variety of other topics, including the addition of new singer Kyle Thomas, how the band stuck to their guns during the fickle '80s, and his thoughts on a certain troublesome tag that was forced upon the band early on.

Greg Prato (Songfacts): It's been six years since the band's last release, Simple Mind Condition. Why did it take such an extended period of time to release The Distortion Field?

Rick Wartell: Well, first and foremost, we went through two rather important personnel changes - they were both vocalists. First Eric Wagner and then Kory Clarke. Until we got to Kyle Thomas. So that alone is a big change. It's a big step, and it takes time to get acclimated to a new vocalist and for a new vocalist to get acclimated to what we're doing.

That, plus recording glitches, that kind of thing. And another reason was that we didn't have a record deal, so we didn't feel any pressure to make this happen overnight. We took our time and wanted to make sure we were completely happy with it before we released it.

Songfacts: What would you say sets The Distortion Field apart from previous Trouble albums?

Rick: When Bruce [Franklin, Trouble's other guitarist/original member] and I wrote the music for this album we kind of had something to prove. We wrote it with an attitude and wrote what we really wanted to write without any outside influences whatsoever for the first time in a long time, let's just say that. And we really didn't care if people were going to dig it or not. We went in and said, "We're going to write what we want to write and let the chips fall where they may." We had to be true to ourselves and make ourselves happy with this record first and foremost, and that was the attitude we went in with. Fortunately, people are liking it at this point, so we're happy about that.

Songfacts: Kyle Thomas was previously a member of Trouble in the '90s, if I remember correctly.

Rick: Yeah. He did some live shows with us. I don't know if he was actually a full member of the band, but he filled in and did some live dates with us for a period in the mid '90s, yes.

Songfacts: How would you say Kyle compares to Eric, vocally?

Rick: Well, they're both completely different. I think Kyle's more a power vocalist with a lot of range. Eric is more of a melody singer with a really high range. But with Kyle, I think it gives us the opportunity to do a lot more musically, because we don't have to worry about keys and key changes, key progressions and that kind of thing, because it just seems like he has more of a range than most singers I've heard out there, let alone Eric. I don't like comparing one against the other, because it's like comparing apples and oranges, really. They both have their really good qualities.

Songfacts: Is Eric still on good terms with the band?

Rick: Yeah. There's no bad blood between any of the band members and Eric Wagner at all. Never been a bad word said between us. People probably find that hard to believe, but we've all known each other for an awfully long time, so we all wish each other well. It's just a matter of what projects people want to work on. It's individual choices.

Songfacts: As far as the songwriting in Trouble, how does it work?

Rick: Well, nowadays it's a little bit different. In the early days we used to collaborate more because we'd be at rehearsals constantly. At this point we don't go to rehearsals on a regular basis anymore, so Bruce will write his songs and bring them to the band and I'll write my songs and bring them to the band.

As far as writing a song, I'll plug in an amp and turn a recorder on, and I'll just play for like an hour. If I find a riff that I really dig, I'll record that separately. Then I'll drive around and listen to it over and over again and let the song take me to where it wants to go. After a while it just tells me where it's supposed to go. At least that's how I do it.

Bruce is a little bit more technical. He has an idea of what he wants when he gets a riff. It's two different styles that really work well together.

Songfacts: Is there a lyrical topic or subject that you've found has recurred in Trouble songs over the years?

Rick: Reality is what Trouble is about lyrically, and it always has been. I know there's a lot of stuff that sounds like fantasy in Trouble songs, but most of that is from personal experiences that the vocalists have endured in their lives.

Kyle brought that same thing to the table, which was something that we really like. What he sings about on this record are mostly situations and life's dealings that he's gone through, and I think that really gives passion to a song and a lot more meaning to people when they hear it.

Songfacts: Something that I've always respected about Trouble and I'm sure a lot of fans do, too, is especially in the '80s the band really stuck to their guns, stylistically.

Rick: It's kind of difficult to be what you're not, and I think Trouble understands that if you start trying to go outside of your comfort zone, people are going to see that: they're going to hear it and it's not going to be real. It's more important for this band to just be who they are, and that's what has given us a fan base to begin with.

I've seen bands that do that, and I never really respected that. We made that promise to ourselves in this band not to be those people: bandwagon jumpers. You know how it is. Like in the '80s if Aerosmith came out with a hit there were like 20 bands that sounded like Aerosmith. To me that's more like corporate metal people who are trying to do it for the wrong reasons, and if you're not doing it because you love what you're doing, then you shouldn't be doing it.

Songfacts: What do you remember about writing the song "When the Sky Comes Down"?

Rick: I wrote like 50% of the music on this record and I wrote all of it in a six day period. There are those times when you're really locked in and focused on writing.

That particular song I remember coming up with the riff for the verse, and I played it over and over again. I was like, "I'm really diggin' this." I recorded that riff and I put it in my car and I just drove around and listened to it and listened to it and listened to it all day long. By the time I got back, I knew what the song wanted me to do.

I went to the chord progressions into the pre-chorus and back to the verse. It was one of those things; I try not to force it and if I'm having an issue with where to go with a song I just put it down and I come back to it and eventually it tells you where it's going to go. Eventually it comes to you and it'll tell you what it wants you to do. I know that's kind of vague, but that's how I write.

Songfacts: Going back to the first album, did you have a hand in writing the song "Assassin"?

Rick: No. Bruce wrote that song. We wrote the first and second record at the same time - we had all of that written before we recorded anything. I remember we were trying to piece together what we were going to put on the first record, which songs we were going to pick and choose for that particular record. We were talking about how we needed something to break up the tuning, and Bruce came to rehearsal the following day with a complete song called "Assassin."

I remember him saying it was a Judas Priest style of song. I guess he was inspired by something Judas Priest had done at the time.

Songfacts: And then what about from the second album, the title track, "The Skull." Did you have a hand in writing that?

Rick: Yeah, that's one that I did write. That was a strange process. The riff, the acoustical riff in that song, I kind of got the idea from Diary of a Madman with Randy Rhoads playing this really eerie acoustic guitar. So I started just playing that riff over and over and over again, and Eric started doing some vocalizations to it.

The rest of the song just followed it. I let the song take me to where it wanted to go. It's rather eerie; I know it's a rather strange song, but that was what we were shooting for, something heavy.

And then Bruce did write the ending part of that, where it kicks into high gear. We wanted to pick up the pace at the second half of the song instead of continuing with the mesmerizing hypnotic style, so we thought it would be good to kick it into a higher gear. So Bruce came up with that really cool ending, and that was done relatively quick, too. We wrote that song in a day.

Songfacts: Something else I'm curious to get your thoughts on: were you comfortable with some of the music descriptions that people used for Trouble, such as "doom metal" and also "white metal"?

Rick: You know, I'm more comfortable with doom metal than I am white metal. That was a marketing scheme by Brian Slagel, the owner of the label we were on at the time [Metal Blade]. We were on the same label as Slayer and we did some shows with them, so Brian came up with this great idea to have the white metal band and the black metal band going on this tour. I remember when we saw that in magazines and fanzines or wherever he was advertising at the time, we were looking at each other going, "What's this guy doing? He's killing us."

It's been over 20 years and people are still talking about that. It had a big impact, and we kind of knew it at the time. We did have a discussion with him about that, and let him know how unhappy we were about it, but we're just a metal band. When we first recorded in '84/'85, there weren't even other genres. Nowadays everything's broken up into a million different genres of music, but back then it was just metal. If you played heavy you were a metal band, and that's what we consider ourselves to be.

Songfacts: It's impressive how many subsequent musicians and bands Trouble influenced. From pictures I've seen, James Hetfield from Metallica has a denim jacket that he wears on stage that has a Trouble patch on it.

Rick: I think it's great. What better promotion can you get than from James? Seriously. He's always been a Trouble fan. In the early days when we used to play at the Stone in San Francisco, he'd come to every show and he'd come up and do a song with us every now and then hang out backstage and drink beer and bullshit. We've known James forever. It's cool to see him wearing the Trouble patch and showing what we've always been a part of.

September 6, 2013. Visit newtrouble.com for all your Trouble needs.
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Comments: 1

A great band. Hard to remember, but there was a time when NOBODY was playing music like this. They were essentially the only ones. Now it's common again (too common) and still Trouble had/has better songwriting skills, which is the key.Brian from Los Angeles, Ca

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