Ex-Vicious Rumors bassist Dave Starr’s about Digital Dictator album
Vicious Rumors belongs not only to the developement of the US power metal style, but they were one of the forerunners of the Bay Area scene. The early period of this legendary band was simply awesome: Soldiers of the Night, Vicious Rumors or Welcome to the Ball are masterpieces, the best examples of crushing US power metal. But the best work of their catalogue is undoubtely Digital Dictator, that was released 30 years ago. Bassist Dave Starr told us everything about this excellent record.
So Dave, thanks a lot for accepting my interview request. Let we fly back in the past a little bit. The band was formed in 1979, but you guys joined in 1985. What about your musical past as a whole? Did you play in any bands prior to Vicious Rumors?
Actually, I joined VR in late 1984. But it was not really a band at that point, it was just Geoff and Gary. I think Larry came in about 5 or 6 months later. I was the original bassist in Laaz Rockit from ’82 to ’83, for about 18 months. After I left the band, I had a power trio called Black Leather for about a year. I was playing bass and singing. I actually tried to get Geoff into Black Leather, but he was trying to put a new VR line-up together, and he asked me to come up an audition.
To which extent were you familiar with the band?
I met Geoff in ’82 or ’83 when I was in Laaz Rockit. He had an earlier version of VR at the time, and I saw them to play at a club in San Francisco. They were very good. I introduced myself to Geoff one night after a show, so that’s how we met.
Would you say, that Vicious Rumors were one of the forerunners of the Bay Area scene? Were both of you deeply involved in the Bay Area scene by the way?
I would say yes, things got going in the Bay Area around ’81/’82. There was a club called the Old Waldorf, and they started to do metal shows. Laaz Rockit and VR were doing shows then. That was really the start of the whole metal movement in the S.F. Bay Area. It just exploded from there on, and things got bigger and bigger.
What kind of memories did you have from the very beginnings, when everything started with bands, such as Metal Church, Sinister Savage/Griffin, Exodus, Leviathan/Anvil Chorus, Blind Illusion and KUSF radio/Metal Mania fanzine? How did it evolve, that became later on, when the thrash metal bands started making a name for themselves?
I remember all those bands. It was a really cool time to be alive and out playing shows. We were all young and full of shit, we all thought our bands were great and we would be the next big thing!
After the debut record Soldier of the Night major line-up changes happened: singer Carl Albert (R.I.P.) and guitarist Mark McGee joined the band. How did they get in the picture exactly? Why did Vinnie Moore and Gary St. Pierre leave the band?
Gary was just not working out, he had alot of problems. Vinnie, he never cared about VR and he left before the album even came out. We struggled with a temporary guitar player (Terry Montana) and Gary for about a year. I told Geoff that VR was no longer a band, it was just me, Geoff, and Larry along with two guys who were not really into it. Something had to be done. I decided to solve the problem myself. Geoff and I argued alot about this, but I knew what I was doing. I went out and found Carl and Mark on my own. This was 100% my doing. Geoff had nothing to do with it.
Getting Mark was pretty easy, since I had known him for years and we were friends. Carl, I did not know at all. A friend told me about him, so I went to see Carl play a few shows with his band Villain. He was amazing! I knew he was the guy for VR, but it took me a while to get him interested in joining the band. When I first approached Carl, he had no interest at all in VR… or talking to me! It took about a month, but I finally got him to see the light!
At which point did you sign Roadrunner, that became your new label?
Our label in the USA (Shrapnel) and Roadrunner had a partnership, so when we signed our two album deal with Shrapnel, we also had a distribution deal pre-arranged with Roadrunner.
When did you start writing the new material? Did Mark and Carl also take part in the songwriting process?
The first song we wrote, was Mark and I getting together and writing music for a new song that ended up being the title track Digital Dictator. We did this before Mark was even in the band! Geoff was out of town, and I called up Mark and asked him if he wanted to work on a new song with me. I had a rough idea that I showed Mark, and he came up with a few more parts… and we had the music for the song written in about 1 hour! I had known Mark for about 5 years, so this songwriting session actually led to me asking him about the idea of joining VR. Once the new line-up was set, the energy just flowed out of all five of us and the chemistry was just incredible! All five of us contributed to the song writing on Digital Dictator.
Did they push the band into a more aggressive, faster direction? How much of an influence did they have on the new tracks?
Carl and Mark had a big impact on the new direction and sound of the band. Carl was obviously a big change and improvement over Gary, and Mark added a very melodic element with his unique playing and songwriting. One of the great things about Mark, was that his playing and writing was very different then Geoff’s. Nothing worse then having two guitar players that sound exactly the same!
A two track promo was released in 1987. Did the label ask you to record it? Did they want to hear an advance material from you?
You might be referring to the three song demo we recorded. It was basically done to show the new songs and new band sound to Mike Varney. I don’t think it was ever really officially released, but at some point it leaked out and years later ended up on the internet. It sounds pretty good.
You entered the Prairie Sun Studios to record the new album. How did the recording sessions go?
VR was always a band that went into the studio very prepared and ready to rock. We did not fool around and waste time. Bands on the Shrapnel label had limited time and money to work with in the studio, so you really had to have your shit together! I really don’t exactly remember, but I’d say we probably were in the studio for no more then a few weeks recording the entire album.
How do you mind, if Soldiers of the Night was the blueprint, then Digital Dictator was the final draft?
When Soldiers of the Night came out, I thought it was a masterpiece. But obviously when the band changed direction with Digital Dictator, we really stepped up our game. I look back on Soldiers now, and I think it’s a good album with some great, classic songs… but it’s not nearly as impressive as Digital Dictator. Soldiers has a rougher and somewhat brutal/raw sound, a bit like Maiden with Paul Di’Anno. Digital Dictator has a much more polished sound, yet it’s still heavy.
Were the same ingredients that made Vicious Rumors’ debut good refined, further improved and added singer Carl Albert and guitarist Mark McGee to replace Gary St. Pierre and Vinnie Moore? Did the result become simply stunning?
Going back to Soldiers of the Night….VR had a very solid foundation with Geoff, Larry and myself….. but Carl and Mark were the missing pieces of the puzzle that we desperately needed. The chemistry was perfect. I am very proud to have been the one who put it all together bringing in Carl and Mark.
Did Vinnie Moore never share the same chemistry with Geoff Thorpe as did Mark McGee?
No, not at all! Vinnie is incredible, but he was just a hired gun that the record label brought in to help us record the record. Vinnie was never really interested in VR or working with Geoff. He just recorded his guitar tracks. Then we did the photo session, and he left, and we never saw him again! On the other hand, Mark and Geoff had great chemistry together as players and songwriters. They each sounded very different when soloing and had different influences, and they write differently. I often thought they were similar to K. K. Downing (Geoff) and Glenn Tipton (Mark).
Did Digital Dictator emanate a rich and powerful timbre that would remain somewhat characteristic for all the classic-era albums?
Digital Dictator established the VR sound and line-up that would last through the Live in Tokyo CD in 1992. VR fell apart ’93-’95 with Mark and I leaving and Carl passing away.
Do you agree with, that the album is very diverse and dynamic, and really something of its own kind? There are a few speed metal numbers here, a few power, few hints of progessive structures, and even some thrashy parts from time to time, they are their own entity…
Most VR fans consider Digital Dictator to be our best album. It has it all, great songs, great playing, and world class vocals. I try not to over analyze things. It’s just a great album that still holds up after 30 years.
Is this a powerfully melodic album without any filler tracks? Tracks like Lady Took a Chance, The Crest, Digital Dictator and Minute to Kill are songs that will never age…
I’m not a big fan of Towns on Fire, or Lady Took a Chance but that’s just my opinion! I like those songs, but I pretty much love everything else on the album. The Crest, that’s a great song that was actually going to be on the Soldiers album, but Mike Varney did not like it. By the time we recorded it again for Digital Dictator, he had changed his mind.
This is an essential Vicious Rumors album, and often hailed as your finest release, correct?
The fans usually say it’s our best album. I’m probably not the best person to ask since I played on all the great VR records, and there are things I like and don’t like about each one. I do think Welcome to the Ball is a really amazing album as well.
Would you say, that Digital Dictator is an excellent album from start to finish, the band sounds great and the songs are all strong? Did it stand the test of time?
30 years later, fans are still listening to it and talking about it! And, its still selling! So we obviously made a great record! I do wish the production was a bit better, but we did the best we could with the money and time we had to work with. Some of the cool bass lines I wrote got lost in the mix, as well as the drums here and there.
Did the record help to define Vicious Rumors’ classic US power metal sound?
Yes, at least that’s what the fans tell me!
What were the shows in support of the album? Can you tell us a more about your gigs?
We did not have any tour support from the label, so we just played wherever we could. All over the USA West Coast, Canada, Mexico City, and a few shows in Europe. The Mexico City shows were crazy! The fans were amazing. The shows in Europe were great as well, we did a big show in Holland with Testament and Megadeth. I think there were about 5000 people there going nuts for us.
How do you view – without to hurt you – that, when Carl Albert died 1995 in a car accident and with the quit of co-songwriter and guitarist Mark McGee you guys couldn’ t reach that quality anymore?
I left the band in late 1993, Mark in early 1995, and a few weeks later Carl passed away. So, in less then 18 months, the three of us were gone. I have never heard any of the albums that came out after I left, I just know what the fans tell me. They say the band died and its never been the same.
How would you describe Vicious Rumors’ career as a whole? What were the highlights and the lowpoints? What are your favourite Vicious Rumors release?
We made some great music, and left a lasting legacy. VR never got as big as it should have, but that’s that way it goes sometimes. Many things went right for us, and many things went wrong. But, the main thing is that the music we made lives on. Nobody can ever take that away from us. High points? Just being in a great band and making incredible music, touring all over the world. Having fans that love your music, and getting to play for them. The tour with Savatage in 1991 was definitely a highlight when I look back, so was the Japan tour in 1992. The low points? Getting dropped by Atlantic, seeing things slip away from us, watching my close friends in the band change (and not for the better), and Carl passing away.
So Dave, thanks a lot for your answers! What would you like to say for the Hungarian readers to finish the interview?
Thanks for all the fans out there who still care about VR and all the great music we made! I’m still making kick ass music in 2018! Please check me out now with WildeStarr (www.wildestarr.com)!