Tony Harnell of Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train
For decades Tony Harnell led the pack of prolific hard rock vocalists fronting bands like TNT, Westworld and Starbreaker.
A few decades later and Tony is reinventing his sound with a retrospective collection of his past hits called “Round Trip”, due out on July 27th. Helping him breathe new life into his old classics is his latest project “Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train” featuring Jason Hagen on acoustic guitar, Chris Foley on electric guitar, Brandon Wilde on bass, Brad Gunyon drums, and wife Amy Harnell on shared vocals. The importance of these particular collaborators is of critical importance to the success of the new arrangements as each of these accomplished musicians come from backgrounds other than hard rock and rather than re-create the songs they have helped Tony reinvent them with new arrangements, additional parts and a whole fresh new take on things. They even included an original song on the album.
Calling the whole process cathartic Tony believes that this homage to the past was his chance to close the door and leave the past behind with whole-hearted gratitude and respect while opening up a new door to the future – all on his own terms. While fans of Tony’s past body of work may be raising a skeptical eye to this new take on things Harnell encourages fans to keep an open mind and listen to these new offerings with new ears as the songs and lyrics are as much his fans as they are his.
As for the future of Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train, those tracks don’t lead far, at least not yet. Harnell has other plans for the near future including a solo album.
Our resident ‘80s guy recently caught up with Tony to talk about this new project and the deep rooted past in hard rock that paved the way.
Interviewed by: Roger Scales
Let’s talk a little about what inspired you to record “Round Trip” with your latest project “Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train”.
Back in 2008 I grabbed these guys in NY and we started to play some shows. Serafino (Perugiono president of Frontiers Records) heard about the shows and asked me if I wanted to do a live album. I told him let’s do a “live spirited album” but let’s go in the studio and do it properly. It was a very interesting experience because it started out as ‘hey I heard your doing some shows” to recording a live album. It ended up being a very cathartic experience, spiritually and in every other way. It was supposed to be a very quick cycle of getting in the studio, recording the music and vocals, and mixing it in a few weeks. In fact we had the music done in just two days but then I got hit with a bunch of personal stuff and had to put the entire album on hold for almost a year.
When I came back to it, it was actually a blessing because I had a lot of fresh energy to put into it and I saw the songs and the way the band had recorded them in an entirely different way. I saw them for what they were now and not what they were before. It really helped me put the vocals in the way they needed to go with these new arrangements. This really ended up being a way for me to close the door on the past, shine some much needed light on songs that I didn’t think got enough attention the first time around; do them in a way that might be more correct for the actual songwriting and not have to worry about what guy’s in a band want to do musically but really just let the songs shine. It also allowed me to show myself as a singer in different colors and in a different light so that maybe people who have forgotten about me or haven’t listened to me since the 80’s can see that I’m back. Some folks know that I’ve done a lot of work since then but maybe the 80’s folks didn’t follow that stuff because a lot of it was on independent labels.
Was it tough to choose which songs to record for this project?
In terms of how we chose which songs to record I had initially reached out to my fanbase and asked them what they wanted to hear for this retrospective. They gave me their opinions and I took some of those and basically some matched what I already wanted to do were pretty much the ones that I picked. I then rounded it out by adding flavors of my own on there.
Do you this stylistic approach will be too drastic a change for your hardcore fans or is this just a natural evolution into Tony Harnell 2010?
For those fans whom have been really following me closely since the 80’s I don’t think they’d be shocked or surprised by this album too much. I think from some of the early reviews I’ve read most had anticipated a boring retrospective re-record where you just play everything back to its original style maybe with just some acoustic guitars but that’s far from what this is. I think from that standpoint it follows the normal kind of “what the hell is he doing?” viewpoint of me which I’ve already come to embrace. I honestly do question myself sometimes as to being in the position I’m in not being a “mega superstar” whether it’s a good idea to take certain chances with my music from time to time. I’ve really (lately) come to the conclusion that it is the best thing for me to do and it makes me the happiest. So I can’t be too concerned with that stuff because I think I’m going to get more out of it in the long run for my career and me personally if I just follow my heart and do what I feel is right.
Do you think that this current band/lineup is just a onetime project or will you continue on and record an album of all new material?
I’d love to record an all original album with these guys I think it would sound amazing but that’s not what I plan to do next. I’m going to record a proper album next just with my name on it. It will be just me naked and it will definitely be a more rock orientated album. It will not be a “throwback” album and I will not be trying to regain former sounds. It will not be “Tell No Tales” or “Intuition” Part II. It will be a rock record not a metal record. Right now I’m focused on the quality of the songs and not a directive into the past. Having said that I would love to come back (at some point) with these guys and do an original album together because there are some real good songwriters within this group which is why I pulled them together in the first place.
What are your touring plans for 2010 in support of “Round Trip”?
There is a record release show in NY on July 30 at the Rockwood Music Hall in NYC and from there we will just wait and see what happens. The album seems to be gaining more and more attention right now so I’m watching to see what’s going to happen.
If someone were to say to you: “Tony I have never heard anything you have ever recorded before “Round Trip” please pick one album from your history as the one you are the most proud of and truly defines you as an artist, singer and songwriter” – how would you respond?
That’s a very tough question. I’d probably have to compile a group of songs from various albums to make that work because as I go back there are a couple of Westworld songs, a couple of TNT songs and there are a few songs off my solo EP Cinematic (2008) plus a few off “Round Trip” that I would have to combine to be able to fully represent me as an artist. I cannot point to one album in particular because I feel that if I pinpoint one track someone may miss another side of me or something I’m striving for.
My favorite TNT record is Realized Fantasies (1992). Atlantic did a very poor job promoting that album and subsequently it didn’t sell very well. Why do think that happened and other than the sold out shows you did in Japan that became the basis for your live album “3 Nights in Tokyo” did you do any other touring in support of that record?
Those shows in Japan were the only shows we did for “Realized Fantasies”. The record came out shortly after the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (1991) and I think the label just gave up on us. Oddly there were some bands in our genre that were having hits at that time and I think “Lionheart” could have been hit had it been promoted well. The label lost interest in us and our A&R guy got fired or moved away so there we’re a couple of things that happened right around that time that disrupted things. They printed whatever they shipped in terms of units and that was it. They did not print any more copies. We did no videos and nothing in terms of support. It’s pretty tough to find a copy of that record. There’s definitely no returns on that one! It did well in Japan and may have done better in the US had they shipped more copies of it. It was an interesting time for the band we were in transition because it was the first album that we had recorded completely in the States. There was a lot things going on internally at the time it was a hard album to get through. I don’t think anyone within the band has any fond memories of recording that album. It does come up from time to time as a fan favorite (not a lot) and there are fans who really like it a lot and I think you will find both Ronni (Le Tekro) and I sort of cringe about that record. However when I do go back and listen to it from time to time I do hear some stuff that was cool. I think we compromised too much on it. I don’t think the majority of it was really “us” and I think bringing in another songwriter and changing the lyrics to tones and subjects that were not truly TNT hurt the album as well.
“Rain” is my favorite Harnell vocal of all time and one of the best overall TNT songs as well. Funny how different the fans are and each have different favorite songs from one album to the next.
It’s funny a lot of people complained about my vocals on that album because they felt I was becoming too raspy. I had a lot of issues at that time with several different allergies and had a tough time throughout struggling to get my vocals done the way I wanted them to sound. Great song “Rain”. A little different for us. Could have also been a hit with the proper label support.
In 1994 you recorded an album with Al Pitrelli called “Morning Wood”. That project grew out of cover band you were playing in with him called “Ethel Mertz”. Is there any comparison at all to that record and “Round Trip?”
Not really. The only comparison (I think) that you can make is that I decided to do a stripped down thing. “Morning Wood” (which is one of my favorite albums that I have involved with) was all covers and the band sounded really different. The guys that played on it had more of a hard rock background. The really cool thing about that project was that I had done all hard rock albums up to that point so it was a way for me, for the first time, to show people that I was more versatile singer than they had imagined. The great thing about ‘Round Trip” is that I purposely didn’t pick guys from the hard rock community, they all come from a straight ahead rock n roll background and even our acoustic guitar player has a jazz background. I brought in these guys and really let them go and just say where would you take these tunes if you were to do it your way. Really allowing them to shift to “left field” sort of speak and that’s just what they did. I could not have made an album like this had I handpicked guys from my genre because it would have been too easy for them to fall into the routine of trying too hard to duplicate the songs and bringing them down and making them softer. I didn’t want to do that. I saw no point in doing that, that seems very boring to me. I didn’t want to have to compete with the old recordings. I wanted something to raise the listener’s eyebrows..Hopefully in a good way.
Do the songs that appeared on your solo EP from 2008 (“Cinematic”) have a chance to make it onto your next full solo record?
There are definitely a couple of those songs that I want to record properly for an album. Keep in mind that all of the tracks that ended up on “Cinematic” were in demo format. I think there is still some more than can be drawn out from those efforts. At least two maybe three of those tracks will most likely end up on my next record.
Of the three Westworld studio albums (“Westworld”, ‘Skin”, and Cyberdreams) which do you think caught the vibe and energy of the band best and why?
“Skin” no question. In many ways I consider that to be my first solo record. Obviously the other guys made huge contributions to the sound of that album but my involvement with “Skin” was much deeper than the first record. I like to think I was the driving force behind the style of that record the darkness of it and I just really like that record a lot. The band played great. I really like my singing on that album. It just has a real special place in my heart. I even did the album cover myself. I took all the photographs and even designed the final layout.
Do you regret at all Starbreaker never really touring in the US and do you wish you could have done more extensive touring with those guys?
At the time yes I had wished (believe me we tried) we had made a better effort to play out for the fans. It’s one of those projects that I did not have ownership of the name so it made it difficult to move forward in that direction. We did two really cool albums. I thought the second one was really original and was quite pleased with it. The label (Frontiers) owns the project so there really is no incentive for me to move forward with it. I’m sort of a hired gun in doing those albums. It would be a lot of work with very little reward. I don’t regret doing it. You can get upset about things from the past but I try not to get to regretful.
What would be the biggest difference in meeting Tony Harnell the performer in 1987 and meeting you now in 2010? Are you essentially the same person?
I think in almost every way I’m different. Like anybody, when 20 + years go by you try and evolve in some way. I’m definitely a work in progress!! I’m going to be for the rest of my life. I think that what keeps me interested in life is knowing that I’m work in progress. I’m always trying to work towards something in life. People often say that my songs can be melancholy. That can be true, not so much in the sense of looking back but more in a sense of genuine sadness in a lot of my songs. Honestly I’m not a really melancholic type of person. I don’t dwell on the past or any of my past achievements. I’m more of a present and future thinking person, always looking to the next goal or the next thing I want to achieve. That’s what keeps me interested in my projects because I’m always looking to get better.
What do you think of games such as Guitar Hero and Rockband and do you think it helps or hurts someone who may be interested in becoming a musician or picking up a microphone to become the next Tony Harnell?
I have no idea. I’ve never played any of those games. It’s hard for me to answer. I was tempted to buy Rockband for the first time when The Beatles version was released because that would probably be the only thing that would be fun for me. That’s a tough one because I’ve never even observed anyone even playing the game. I think the exposure to older music and classic bands that they might not be otherwise is a great thing. I know that I have picked up some younger bands from the Sonic games I have sung on.
For the fans that have not seen you live since the early 90’s is there any real hope that we will see Tony Harnell on the road with some more extensive touring in the not too distant future?
It’s definitely a goal of mine. It’s always just a matter of how to put together a band and make sure nothing is done half ass. We are always looking for a good agent and any touring possibilities if not with The Mercury Train than with a straight ahead solo rock band.
Any final message you would like to convey to your fans reading this Tony?
It’s been a long time since I have seen American fans on the road and I hope to change that. I read your messages, I listen to your suggestions and I appreciate all the love and support I get from all of you. I hope to see all of you on the road soon!!