Friday, March 1, 2024

Interview with Royal Orphan by Dave Wolff

Interview with Brendan Kelly of Royal Orphan

Your collaboration with Joey Mignanelli, the drummer and other founding member of Royal Orphan, dates back to the late 1980s. During that time, you have witnessed many changes in mainstream and underground music. How did Royal Orphan emerge from your collaboration, and how does working together to this day feel to you?
Royal Orphan is a natural culmination of everything Joey and I have done since we first met in high school. We actually both studied music in college with theory and composition so that combined with the influences of everything we grew up listening to results in what we sound like now. The hardest part is keeping it focused and cohesive so the music doesn’t have that “everything plus the kitchen sink” sound. We know musically what we’re capable of but we don’t feel the need to beat people over the head with our ability. Originality and innovation and quality songwriting is where the work comes in. To be truthful, I’m still re-using a lot of riffs and ideas way back from when I was in high school because of how well they held up all this time. A lot of those riffs used to grab people back when we were around, so why not roll them out now to a younger metal crowd? And nowadays I couldn’t be happier; we just can’t rehearse twice a week like we used to, nowadays it’s more like twice a month if we’re lucky. Scheduling around family life, kids, work and all that. So we make the best of the time we have to get things done. We still have the same inside jokes and all that and there’s a lot of history and memories. With Joey and Dan (Kelleher) there’s no one I’d rather work with. Three gears in a machine, that’s us.

What bands were you listening to when you met, and how influential were they in shaping your musical style over time?
The legendary tale is that Joey and I met in music class in Catholic high school. Our teacher was a nun, and Joey brought in King Diamond’s “Them” cassette to play for the class. We immediately became friends! He told me he played drums, and that week I was at his house with my guitar. First song we played was Mercyful Fate’s “Come to the Sabbath” start to finish without a hitch. We just took it from there. So pretty much the same bands we grew up listening to: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Slayer, Megadeth and Testament and later on we discovered bands like Voivod, Annihilator and Forbidden. Those bands really set the bar high in terms of the musical proficiency as well as innovation and originality. They had all the chops and ability but they never forgot about songwriting too, particularly Voivod who are a huge influence on our writing even though we don’t sound much like them at all, I always loved Piggy’s riffs because they were so heavy but he didn’t sound like anyone else. So in that regard it was fortunate there players like him to look up to because his style changed and advanced over time but never lost focus of what he was all about.

What was the inspiration behind the band's name? Does it have a specific meaning?
I wanted to put together two words that described opposites but made sense together. The word “Royal” meaning dignified, distinguished and suggests nobility, the word “Orphan” meaning desolate, alone, vagabond. What I really want to do is create an actual character that I can use in song lyrics like a running conceptual thread.

Where did you see old school thrash and power metal going in the mid 1990s, when grunge was becoming a trend and black and death metal were expanding their boundaries? In the middle of the decade, I remember the old school really making a comeback.
We were called Sanity in Ashes circa 1994-1997 and at that point with thrash/power metal you couldn’t give it away on a street corner. There were a few bands like us out there playing it at niche clubs and shows, bands like Gothic Knights and Zandelle. But everything back then was death metal and hardcore. I liked some of that stuff, I have friends in both scenes but I didn’t wanna go that way musically. I always had that hope of getting to Europe and pushing our stuff over there to a more receptive audience. As for grunge I thought it was just another fad. The first albums by those bands were great, I liked Soundgarden and the early Pearl Jam stuff but it just got ridiculous. Guys who could barely play their instruments singing every song about heroin and all out of tune. Just like any other subgenre the good bands had longevity and the more derivative bands fell by the wayside and were forgotten.
Later in the 90s, on the metal side, there were bands like Hammerfall who I thought were pretty good but I already had all the good Helloween albums worth owning. I thought “yeah they have the right idea and their hearts in the right place, but if they were more original they could smack it out of the park.” The old school made a comeback for a lot of reasons. The Kiss reunion with the makeup set everyone off on a nostalgia trip, so I think that triggered a lot more reunions.

What impact did those bands, with their originality and creativity, have on underground/extreme bands in the 90s and beyond? How would you account for their longevity?
Metal has its own trajectory built into it by its very nature. From the day Black Sabbath released their first album, millions of contenders to the throne were launched. The lyrics became more explicit, tempos got faster, guitars got flashier, vocals got more extreme either in the direction of Halford or Cronos, so the impact of bands like Voivod, Coroner, Mercyful Fate et al I would say had a profound impact on how death metal became more technical and black metal became more artsy/poetic if you will. It’s all a matter of what you want to take from it and which direction you want to pull. It’s funny you’re talking about longevity because Mercyful Fate just pulled off a tour bigger than they ever did in the 80s. I saw Exciter a few months back and they’re packing houses everywhere they go; maybe more than they did in the 80s. The longevity is attributed to JUST HOW FREAKIN AWESOME that material was back then. I think technology helps in a big way too. A younger audience with more disposable income has access to more music and they can check stuff out. I’d wager that because maybe this generation is more educated I guess?? Maybe a 25 year old in 2024 has a degree as opposed to the 25 year old hanging at L’Amour every night in 1986; they travel to festivals and they can spend more money on merch.

Do you remember outlets such as Slipped Disc that were around in the old days? At a time when it was difficult to locate the bands you listened to, how important were stores like it?
I remember Slipped Disc very very well. I grew up in Suffolk County so my place was Looney Tunes where I also worked for a while but Slipped Disc blew my mind the first time I went there. I think it was 1995 and I went there because they carried the Phil Lynott biography “The Rocker” when it first came out. I drove the hour from my house to go there to buy it. When I walked in and looked around I was dumbfounded. I think I dropped over 100 bucks in there. I bought the book, Thin Lizzy’s “Thunder and Lightning”, Saxon’s “Rock the Nations” and Blind Guardian’s “Imaginations from the Other Side” who I had never heard of before but I bought it just for the cover. I found Forbidden Distortion there and I had no idea they released anything after “Twisted into Form”. So I waited until next payday and grabbed that too. Entire discographies of Saxon, Raven, Savatage, Running Wild, Venom, stuff you couldn’t find anywhere.
Those places were a lifeline; but they were kind of like that smoke signal that let you know there was still signs of life out there. Of course you had to pay import prices but who cared. When you see young kids on the internet bitching about shipping costs on vinyls and CDs I feel like saying, “dude you have no idea.”

Has the internet effectively replaced vinyls or will there always be a need for them?
Maybe commercially, but the experience of going to a record store and being in that environment and physically surrounded by music can NOT be replaced. I honestly believe there will always be a need for them because the purchasing of music should be a real, tangible experience. A real music connoisseur shops for music like they shop for produce; you check every apple for blemishes.

The former owner of Slipped Disc continues to sell merch and do record shows in Long Island and elsewhere. Have you had a chance to attend a one of them?
I actually have not but I plan to. Joey goes all the time. He’s a real collector and a vinyl fiend. He gets it from his dad. His father used to take me and him to the record shows all the time at the VFW halls.

In your experience, what was it like to attend a record show at the VFW halls?
The few times I went it was just tables and tables of stuff. There wasn’t really much metal at the time, you really had to dig. I remember holding Venom's “From Hell to the Unknown” on double vinyl in my hands but not buying it, too scared ha ha ha. It was really a lot of older guys going nuts looking for an original Beatles' “Yesterday and Today Butcher Block” cover or another copy of Herb Alpert's “Tijuana Brass Whipped Cream” album. The genuine rarities.

I remember Record World at the Roosevelt Field mall, the first outlet where I discovered import releases. Did you visit there back in the day?
Not in Roosevelt Field but the Record World at TSS in West Babylon OH MAN what a place that was. Just talking about it I can’t believe the stuff they had; in the midst of a department store that also had a barber and a dentist and a food court It’s hard to imagine. They had imports, picture discs, the works.

In my observation many bands do “farewell tours” only to reunite thereafter. Generally, do you think they miss touring and give them the benefit of the doubt, or do you consider their reunion tours to be a series of cash grabs?
It’s hard to say with the farewell tours. A certain “#1 all-time favorite” band of mine who I won’t name has absolutely blown it. I know the original guys can’t stand each other. Maybe they get the itch because they know there’s an audience. They see kids one fourth their age wearing the shirts and singing the songs. I think in that sense they see relevance as a greater currency than cash because there isn’t much to be had out there. Bands are cancelling tours because touring costs so much.

What did you think of the “retro thrash” thing that began in the mid-90s with bands like Gehennah and Inferno? Some found it exciting and some believed those bands were faking it. Do you think it needed to happen in some ways, so the genre could come back?
I got a kick out of Gehennah; I had the “King of the Sidewalk” CD because of their Ill Literature interview I read. In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that four guys from Sweden who drink like that and wear Manowar and Venom shirts in 1995 have NO reason to fake anything. The thing is they were like another Hammerfall to me. They took the style of one or two influences and tried to make a whole other genre out of it, and maybe it somehow worked for them. Hammerfall is still in business but I just don’t see a band creating a body of work from it. At that particular point in time I ate it all up because I loved that stuff and in the States the alternative thing became so preposterous; songs about peaches and “mmmmm mmmm mmmmm mmmm mmmmmm” for a chorus. Ridiculous. But yes I do credit those bands, although derivative; they did what they had to do in order to start kicking doors down.

What explains your continued working relationship with Joey Mignanelli, and how did you first hook up with Dan Kelleher?
As for working with Joey and Dan, they’re my “ride or die” as the kids say these days. Joey and I just click, we have that chemistry and we lock in, that whole premonition thing about what the other is going to do next. He’s not just a great drummer, he’s a very advanced musical mind. Dan too. I’ve known Dan literally since we were four years old each, we grew up in the same town and got into music at the same time. We all hold each other to a very high standard because we all know what the other is capable of.

What is the frequency of your opportunities to write and practice during the Covid pandemic? When you're able to work in person, how do you go about creating songs? Do you have a practice space where you regularly meet?
We did not practice at all during the initial pandemic, March through July of 2020. Not just because of the lockdown but because I work as an RN in an ICU of a hospital in Queens NY and we got absolutely pounded. I was working four to five days a week, twelve hour shifts. Not only that but I have three children and my wife and I were working with them on their virtual schoolwork, and my son has autism so he needed a lot of attention. But I have my studio in my basement so I was able to work on tons of material which we are now refining and preparing to record. I practiced my individual guitar chops a lot so I definitely used that time to my advantage.
I usually write my version of what I have in mind for any given song with a pretty solid framework of where I’d like the song to go. I send a sound file to Joey and Dan and they give input. 90% of the time I show up with the “ingredients” if you will; riffs, chord sequences, lyrics, melodies; Joey and Dan come in and add arrangements. Sometimes they’ll rework an idea so it makes more sense, adds more suspense/intrigue or they’ll suggest changing the sequence of parts in a song so the song flows better.

How much of a task is it to balance family life with playing in a band? Is your wife supportive of what you’re doing working with other musicians? The 2021 documentary “I’m Too Old For This Shit” featuring the band Siren touches on these ideas.
Yeah it’s very difficult but it’s all in how you manage your time. It helps that I can send audio files of my ideas so everyone has an idea of the material walking in. Parenting in the modern age is a hundred times more involved than it’s ever been. I have two daughters in dance lessons and like I mentioned my son has autism so he requires a lot of attention. But you adapt, and the way I see it, I don’t have darts night or poker night with the guys; once or twice a month we get together in person and work on music for a solid four hours at a clip. And my wife is great; she’s very busy herself. Family is number one over everything.

Is it better for a band to have similar tastes in music and share that chemistry, or to have divergent tastes and work to make them fit together? Would it depend on how willing the band members are to work on a give-and-take basis?
We all grew up with the same core bands; Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Metallica, Megadeth, etc. As time went on, I buried myself deeper into metal and 70s hard rock like UFO, Thin Lizzy and Blue Oyster Cult. Joe got into some death metal along the way and he’s a huge Misfits/Danzig fan. Dan is the prog rock aficionado; Rush, ELP, King Crimson. So in our case it works quite well; in our case it does work because we’re old enough that we’ve lived through and seen so many different phases of music, we pick and choose what we like from everything. I think there of course needs to be a common vision between the members for what direction they agree to go in. The last thing the local scene needs is another of what I call a “T-shirt band’, which is four or five dudes in their mid-twenties all wearing Slipknot shirts and guess who they wind up sounding like? It’s like “hey, congratulations guys, you sound exactly like a ripoff of your favorite band.”

When surfing Youtube or other streaming sites, how many ripoff bands or t-shirt bands do you usually see?
Oh they’re out there. I really quantify them but let’s just say there’s always been bands who “play by the rules” and these days it seems like an infestation of them.

Many bands are known to incorporate classical, opera, folk music and tribal percussion into their material. Documentaries like Sam Dunn’s “Global Metal” introduce music fans to creative and inventive musicians. Is this something you would consider doing?
If a song called for it in terms of getting across the lyrics or the atmosphere then absolutely. Joey and I actually performed Bollywood songs on stage with Indian musicians; it was a short lived project where they fused an Americanized guitar and drums format with traditional Indian music and songs from Bollywood movies so that was interesting. If you really pick apart Royal Orphan’s music there’s a lot of different flavors in there, it’s just a matter of making it fit. I always loved bands like Orphaned Land from Israel, Amorphis and Waylander from Ireland who added their own traditional ethnic influences into their music.

Sepultura was one of the first bands to incorporate tribal music before it became popular. When they started doing it, did you have a feeling it would eventually catch on?
I didn’t really follow Sepultura after “Chaos AD”. But at that time a lot of thrash bands were trying different things, trying to stay fresh and new without going the Metallica “Black Album” route. For them it worked, it was part of their national identity and it fit their music. I remember they had actual tribe members playing those parts. A new idea always has the potential to catch on depending on how well the originator pulls it off. Or if not, someone else tries to do it better I suppose.

What's your view about whether the “Black Album” by Metallica was good or bad for metal? What are the pros and cons?
I was in senior year of high school when that album came out. We used to get asked to play for all the pep rallies and football games so we’d play “Enter Sandman” because everyone knew it. But as an album it really didn’t stick to me, and to be honest I’d say that around when “…And Justice for All” came out we all knew something wasn’t right. The production was very thin, lack of bass, and it sounded like only one guitar. The “Black Album” definitely had better production but the riffs were gone and the speed and power were gone. I guess the focus was on more radio friendly songs. My whole thing with Metallica is that whatever they do now, good for them. They’re the most successful of the genre I won’t smack talk them. I love the first three albums; they’re burned into my DNA and they were a key element in my development as a guitarist and musician. I’m just not into what they do anymore.

I myself have seen some Bollywood movies, which of them did the band borrow songs from?
I don’t know the actual movies, but there was a composer by the name of RD Burman who also went by the name Puncham. I remember there was one song called “O Mere Dil Ke Chain” and a few others. This project was long before we started the Royal Orphan project, but in the future we may incorporate these elements. The rhythm and modal flavors I found intriguing.

Does Royal Orphan also look for new folk/traditional metal bands to listen to for inspiration, such as from Asia or New Zealand?
I’ve recently gotten into a band called Wytch Hazel, they’re getting really popular. They have English folk interludes and themes but overall it’s a heavy 70s influence like Thin Lizzy, Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash with Christian lyrics.

Regarding that running conceptual theme you mentioned, do you have any ideas for the character you’ve been considering creating? What sources of inspiration have you been seeking?
So at the moment we’re working on our first full length to follow up the EP from 2018. The opening track is tentatively titled “Nightrunner”. There’s a passage in the lyrics that says “once you were royally now just an orphan running wild” so it references the character and describes the situation the songs subject is in. On one hand you can say the song is about the collapse of civilization but it’s also how the modern person would react if they were subject to a real “Lord of the Flies” scenario. You suddenly wake up one day and all the constructs and systems you relied upon were gone. I mean let’s face it; the average grown adult today melts down when they lose their Wi-Fi signal. If per chance one day a disaster struck so profoundly that we lost electricity, clean running water and food we’d have a ‘kill or be killed’ situation. And for the record I’m not a doomsday prepper but in today’s world we’re highly dependent on very intricate systems that guide us in our lives. One day we may have to rely on basic survival if it fails.

Is “Nightrunner” sort of a commentary on how people are over dependent on technology? Or is it related to laziness and complacency on the part of many people? How does this character you’re thinking of relate to it?
It is to a degree. This character once lived in the modern high tech world and is now thrust into an environment where they are expected to survive and hopefully thrive by a completely different set of rules. The idea of Royal Orphan as a character can be described as a rags to riches or someone transplanted across social classes. It can go both ways. I mean look at me as a person in real life and my own situation. I was living in a one room apartment and pretty much a non-entity until I kicked my own ass into gear and made something out of myself. I kicked alcohol and partying and got focused. But still, I displaced myself out of where I belong. An 80s head banger kid working as an ICU nurse or anywhere in healthcare? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s America.

What were the ideas you lyricized for your 2018 EP? Were the lyrics inspired by any specific occurrences or were they about certain issues in general?
They were indeed about individual topics and I can break them down song by song.
“In Requiem” is a metaphor for the death of the music industry as we know it. The second verse “she was our queen the muse” is the personification of music as we all loved it, and how it’s been turned into something faceless and weak.
“Lost in Time” is about what I mentioned before, and it could be considered part of the character’s story. I went through a point in my life where I was complacent and maybe not doing the right thing and had a feeling of regret.
“Citizens of Nowhereville” pretty much describes the town I grew up in.
“Lights Camera Nothing” was inspired by one time I was flicking through channels. I came across Dane Cook on HBO and I was dumbfounded by his audience. A huge basketball arena and he’s on a huge stage and he has no material. Just blabbering nonsense and the audience was eating it up. Hey good for him that he can capitalize on the severe lack of intelligence of a whole generation, but it’s just sad that this is what passes for entertainment. And it’s like that across music and everything as we all know. The last verse incorporates like a Britney Spears type of scenario placed in a sort of human sacrifice setting. Old Roman amphitheater style. Again, nothing against her, it’s just sad what happened to her and all the other ones to follow. It’s a business that makes a commodity out of people. The big makers and movers and shakers and check writers just have no fucking souls.

Could you describe the growth process your lyrics have undergone since you released your EP?
It’s really more of the same; my lyrics are all about the human experience, my own perspective of the world and the older you get you realize that we’re always going to live in a world where things happen and change. So as long as the world keeps changing I’ll have no shortage of things to write about. That’s all I know how to do. The satanic bands, the bands who sing about witches and warriors and dungeons and dragons and fantasy themes, they do what they do and let em enjoy it but it’s not for me. I can’t sing that stuff with any conviction and make people believe it. So the themes I’m dealing with now are all just about real stuff that people can relate to. Even if the verbiage I use makes it work in a metal song.

It is more common nowadays to find bands pushing the boundaries of underground music?
Depends what you mean by underground; I think there are a handful of people out there who have the right idea. A long time ago music just hit an apex where there is literally no more innovation to be had. You can only reinvent the wheel to a point where you don’t have anything that functions like a wheel anymore. And particularly with heavy metal the fans can be finicky cats like Morris and his 9 Lives from the commercial. A lot of them have expectations to be met when they tune into a band or an album. You’re dealing with genre loyalists who expect a band to adhere to the bylaws of that genre so it’s a fine line to walk. I’m guilty of that myself. As a listener and a fan I know when a band gets too kooky or freaky with their sound I get turned off so as a writer and a musician I try to find the doors and windows where I can tweak things and be more expressive. But to answer your question I think if you look hard enough you can find some very interesting things. Unleash The Archers is a band doing insanely technical power metal like a completely over the top Symphony X but their songs are infectiously catchy; you could sing along in the car like any 80s pop song on the radio. Like I said if you’re inventive enough and you’re well versed in song composition like they are you can pull it off.

Can entertainment retain a part of its soul with underground music still growing and evolving, and the industry growing on its own merits? How will Royal Orphan continue to grow?
I think there are a few labels out there that have the right idea and they support their artists very well. But we all know, and we’ve seen it, that some of our metal heroes are phoning it in. Bands who were once considered underground are now half assing it, using backing tracks etc. But enough has been said about that. I think “soul” happens when someone puts something out there and the audience is receptive to it. When you hit those drums so hard they shake, when you belt that vocal note directly at the person in the back of the room, when you lay down that guitar solo like you’re at the gates of Heaven and Jimi and Eddie and Randy are watching you. As for how we’re going to grow in the future, I’m not sure how we’re going to practically last as an entity. But if I had control of the situation I’d like us to take a direction that resonates the old school spirit but not sounding like anyone else. Always pushing the envelope and trying to create something that no one else has done before.

With social media giving bands more creative control, how do you expect Royal Orphan to make an impact aboveground?
I don’t ever consider us breaking “aboveground.” That horse left the barn a long time ago. All three of us are married men pushing 50, there is no reason our personal demographic would ever be of any interest to the big tastemakers of the population of the American consumer. Right now all the power of the entertainment industry is in the hands of Taylor Swift and her legions of teenage girls with all of that disposable income. It’s pure economics; to quote Bill Hicks that is a lot of babysitting money to be shared around. She is literally the only thing happening “aboveground” right now. Any self contained rock band who plays their own instruments and writes their own songs whether you’re Green Day or Metallica or you’re a smaller band on our level serves only one purpose; we’re just there to piss everyone off. We just keep on showing up.

Regardless of how long Royal Orphan remains active, what would you like people to remember about your career when looking back?
I don’t consider what we do to be a “career” as much as it is an “endeavor.” I haven’t broke even from any of this and I don’t expect to. My main motivation for this is just to leave something behind one day; I think that’s what most musicians aspire to whether they admit to it or not. Your recorded legacy is forever; you, the musician are not. So if anyone looks back on what we did, I would really like people to think we did it our way, the best we could with 100% integrity. None of what we do is crowd funded, none of this is AI. Just pure grit, sweat, work ethic and a love for what we do. All our songs are painstakingly written, all our lyrics are about something, not just strung together generic “blood and guts and Satan.” We don’t have time for that; we focus on the composition of the songs and we take it seriously and we won’t waste a well written song on lyrics that we could have scratched out in junior high in five minutes. Every song is important to us and gets something across. But most of all we want people to enjoy it because otherwise what’s the point?

-Dave Wolff

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