Megadeth: Heavy Metal Serendipity: An Interview with Megadeth's James Lomenzo
Interview conducted in spring 2008.
It's been a long and winding road for rock bassist James Lomenzo. Having gained his first substantial recognition in the 1980's with the band White Lion, he's since worked with an array of colorful and extreme musicians -- people like Ozzy Osbourne, Zakk Wylde, Slash, and David Lee Roth. In 2006 Lomenzo's rock and roll journey led him to thrash-masters Megadeth; and now almost two years later he still couldn't be happier.
UnRated Magazine caught up with Lomenzo during a three-week break after the European leg of the third annual Gigantour festival, and right before kicking into the American leg of the tour.
When asked how the band's break is going, Lomenzo - while driving home from a dentist appointment replied:
"We've been hitting it so hard, on the 'United Abominations campaign,' as we've called it," he chuckles, "Just jumping back from Europe for four weeks -- it's an awful lot at this point, but I guess I'm just getting older and more crotchety is all. It's still as much fun as it used to be, it just seems like we do more and I really don't think that's true."
Even so, the reality of 'the road' has to be trying for any musician -- particularly one with a family.
"There are two sides to that coin. I'm here with my lovely wife and daughter, driving in the car right now, and I got to see a whole bunch of soccer games and concerts. That's a big payoff, I miss that stuff. But this is a living -- it's kind of hard not to like doing this as a job because you show up everyday and everybody treats you basically like it's your birthday; happy to see you and sometimes bringing gifts," he laughs. "So it's good and bad at the same time, you know? But I've had all the real jobs that everyone else has had throughout my life, so there is no perfect job."
Having jumped around from project to project over the years, one wonders if that was intentional, or simply how life worked itself out for Lomenzo, musically.
"Except for perhaps White Lion, I would have preferred that it would have been like it is right now forever and ever - in other words, I'm perfectly happy in the Megadeth band. Everyone has the ability to contribute and be a part of it. In other bands throughout most of this it's been that way too, but it's so funny because -- I think it was John Kalodner who told me, 'You know all these bands that I've worked with? They're all just a series of dysfunctional families.' So you're always just waiting for Grandma to say the wrong thing on Sunday afternoon," Lomenzo laughs, "And then the whole thing blows up, and that's usually what happens eventually."
"So yeah, I would have preferred to have stayed in any one of those bands for its eternity. And then one particular one, when Zakk [Wylde] and I started up the Pride & Glory band, which probably no one's heard of, that was a really special band to us because it was the first band that we put together to break away from our 'corporate gigs' -- White Lion and Ozzy Obsourne. When we started that band we had all high hopes and in some regards that band was just about kind of dictating the way we'd make our music with extended jams and basically about playing music for the moment. And all kinds of things happened there, and some of them I won't share with the audience and some of them I will. The record company changed hands at the wrong time, et cetera, et cetera. So before you know it, you're off to the next adventure."
Lomenzo continues: "Having said that, in retrospect looking back at all these bands I've played with I'm kind of a specialist. Not that I'm a specialist bass player -- I'm a pretty good bass player - but a specialist in that I can get along with what people consider these really tough personalities. I love these people; I totally respect them to no end. I think what makes them what they are is this unyielding vision of their own perception of the way people see them. They follow that through and there's something inspirational about that. It's got all the minefields and things like that, but I do well with people like that."
With having the talent to get along with such intense personalities, Sass commented to Lomenzo that he must have a flexible personality. Lomenzo responded: "I'm not very flexible, but I'm not very inflexible either. I am a good listener."
So, being the perfect balance of malleability, would Lomenzo consider working with any of those musicians or projects again in Megadeth down-time?
"You know what, been there, done that -- kind of in a way. I have fond memories, and the thing I learned about after finishing up with Black Label [Society] was that you can never go home again. Again, back to the dysfunctional family thing..."
(At this point in the conversation, and literally in mid-sentence, the phone line died.)
Upon Lomenzo's dialing back into Sass again, he began with a laugh, "You see, they're constantly listening in -- all the people I've played with. When I get out of line they cut the cord on me."
He then went on to say, "As far as going back and playing with people again, always a nice thought, [but] I don't really think it can work. Not that I leave on any bad terms, it's just that it seems to me there are these little spaces in time where things work really well. But there are people that I'd love to play with who I've always considered my heroes; Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and people like that. I get so off on so many these great musicians, these are the things that excite me like the opportunity to play with people like this; having said that I am really glad to be in Megadeth as well. At this juncture, Dave [Mustaine] has been nothing but a rallying person for this band, he's really made it feel like a band and he's opened all types of opportunities for all of us in the band. And we're doing this sort of thing where - how many times does a band come back - I wouldn't say from the ruins because I don't think Megadeth ever found their way there, but found their way back from basically being done. You know it happens all the time, you see these bands and they're just kind of done. And that's something that happened to White Lion although they've had opportunities to come back but for a lot of reasons they weren't able to build on those opportunities and get together and resolve conflicts. So I think Dave has been smart enough to realize that a lot of Megadeth is based purely on his own vision. And he's kept that pure and he's kept that strong, and if it took other musicians to reach that vision then so be it; a lot like Steely Dan, maybe."
That vision shone brightly on the 2007 Megadeth release, United Abominations, Lomenzo's first studio album with the band.
"I didn't initially hear that Megadeth was looking for a bass player, I heard that somebody was and eventually I found out who it was and I sent my CD in. But when I realized that it was Dave I thought I would love to be a part of this legacy. If there was some way, any way I could not just be the guy up on stage but also make an album then that would really be the icing on the cake. And sure enough, that was the second question -- the first question was 'can you learn a set of about 28 songs in three weeks?' and like an idiot I said yes. And the second question was 'would you like to do an album, I'm thinking about getting back in the studio as Megadeth' -- and I heard that big bell go off and I was thrilled to death."
"So to get into the studio with Dave and watch the way he does it, I was really surprised because I would have thought he'd be a task-master and really be kind of derisive for musicians, but he turned out to be a real open person. A lot of the music we went in to work with had already been demoed to some degree and had already been laid out and yet he kept asking us to explore and to open up new ideas and come up with things, and I thought that was really generous. And so a lot of it tied back to demos but there was a good portion where we all kind of felt comfortable feeling that we brought what we had to Megadeth's sound. And that's a tricky line to walk because you want it to be familiar for the fans, as well as yourself, but you also kind of want to stamp it a little bit. And Dave was very encouraging about trying to stretch out and see what we could bring that would be just a little bit more. It was a really good experience, and it was a real bonding experience too in that we went up to this studio out in England and literally lived together, which was the first time for this band as a band with the Drover brothers, Dave, and everybody. We really bonded heavily just through this experience of trying to get this album going. Usually it's the other way around, the band is sick of each other and then they're stuck somewhere together," laughed Lomenzo.
Was it difficult at all having to share living quarters with one another during the process?
"I won't kid you; it was an eleven-bedroom mansion. I think it was even catered so it was kind of elaborate. But despite all that, we were there to do a job. Socially it was a good way to do it because it felt Megadeth-big, if you know what I'm saying. It made us feel that we were working in one of the great bands. And a lot of guys work like that, David Lee Roth is like that. You like to get that sense that you're a bit more than just a garage band."
"The great thing about this band is that we all have a great work ethic, if anyone is the slacker it would be me just because I'm older than everyone else and a little more tired. But other than that, everybody is really charged to make music in this band and that's the perfect environment for Megadeth. I think that's really what this band is all about, and serendipitously I think we've all come together at the right time."
And so what about the live aspect of performing as part of the larger-than-life Megadeth?
"Well, a year into it, it finally really snapped for me and it got really, really comfortable. The music threw me just a bit because I've always been more of a blues basher in my other projects. To be on stage and play this music, which is technically not impossible to play, but certainly more delineated than the stuff I usually do, it took me awhile to get my stage-legs. I've always kind of had the rock/metal attitude, but to perform it with the kind of precision that Megadeth demands -- again, so that it's familiar for the audience -- it took me awhile to get all that together. And I guess a year into it it's really sort of snapped for me on stage. And the whole thing really came together even more so just now -- you know we have our new guitar player, Chris Broderick, who just joined the band before this last overseas jaunt. It was a surprise to us that Glen [ Dover] had decided to take a hiatus, and a permanent hiatus. He wanted to stay home with his son who is pretty young and I definitely respect because I remember taking a bit of time off from some project when my daughter was pretty young. So he needed to do that and we needed a guitar player, and fortunately he had the presence of mind along with his brother to recommend Chris -- who actually turned out to be the best choice for this band. And it really is awesome, it's come together nicely."
And it was during the hiatus that Lomenzo took from the music industry where he'd taken on completely different career.
"I left the music business for awhile to be home with my daughter and as such I needed to have another business, so that was one that I developed -- I became a graphic artist. And I did things kind of like billboards, graphic design for perspective papers and booklets, things like that. So I got a well-rounded taste of that, and I got pretty good at it -- and as time went on people would say, 'Well you used to do this and now you're home doing that' and I'd say, 'Well I'm able to be home with the family.' As time moved along I got asked to play with David Lee Roth and I thought, 'Well, I haven't done that -- let's do that.' And that's what got me back out on the road again."
It was that road that eventually led to Megadeth's 'killing road' and the Gigantour era. Being part of this huge music festival, one wonders if the environment behind the scenes with so many bands involved is at all chaotic.
"The festival is actually pretty relaxed. Chaotically -- since I've been in this band the biggest problem we've had is fighting within the road crew," Lomenzo laughs, "And I'm not talking between the different bands, I'm talking within our own crew. It's like they're pirates or something. So anyway, we've managed to rectify that through a few short moves, and that kind of worked itself out. But as far as the Gigantour goes, the most fantastic thing about this it really builds its own social scene. The four of the things that I've been involved in, the one in the states and then overseas, in Australia, back in Europe, and now this one I'm sure -- it's really amazing how these bands who have these really tough images kind of really open up and turn the thing into a party. And the whole idea of the thing is to bring musicians together and put it all under one roof; with the guitar genre in particular -- there's a unity by that alone. There isn't as much competition as there is camaraderie. Hopefully if you get enough dysfunctional families together they keep their dirty laundry at home."
About to wrap up the interview, Sass then asked if she could pose a question about Lomenzo's 1970's band Empty Sky to which Lomenzo laughed and said, "You're good! You just clobbered me with that one!"
Seeing how Lomenzo not only held down the role of bassist in his band Empty Sky, but also vocalist, Sass asked if he misses singing at all.
"Yeah, very much so. It's interesting because this YouTube phenomenon is wonderful, and it's your life on two-inch video. Our guitar tech, Willy G - the famous Willy G -- called me up just the other day and was asking what kind of picks I'd like for this tour, and he said, 'By the way, I just saw a cool video of you singing lead with Ace Frehley in Pokeepsie , New York in 1992.' And I said, 'Wow, that's cool! Yeah, I guess I did sing with him.' So I went immediately on the computer and I looked and was like, 'Hey, not bad!' My daughter walked into the room and said, 'Wow, Dad, that's great! You should sing!' So yeah, I absolutely do miss that role. I went through a phase there -- I guess Empty Sky was probably when I was 13 to 15 [years old], somewhere around there, and it was crazy, we did songs by The Who and by Chicago, anything that had horns. I was a French horn player in school, so what I would do is I listened to anything that had a horn section, which at the time was a lot of the music from Quadrophenia. So we'd be able to get our yayas out playing heavy music and still be able to include all my friends on the bowling team. I'd write up the charts, and God bless my parents -- they let us set up in the basement a seven-piece band; keyboard, two guitar players, a trumpet, a sax player, a trombone player, and a drummer, of course. And we'd practice all this stuff up and it was really pretty good. We'd play hookey from school and then sneak in at lunch hour so that we could like play a battle of the bands. Try sneaking a seven-piece band with all that gear into the back door. The funny thing is it was right behind the music department and we were actually missing orchestral rehearsals for it."
Fortunately for Lomenzo, the orchestra today is a four-piece, crunching metal powerhouse; and he's no longer ditching rehearsals -- he's thrilled to be there. And fans are thrilled as well that he is.
Gigantour 2008 will be exploding forth in Chicago on May 6 th at the Aragon Ballroom.