The Howard Leese Interview

As a member of Heart, guitarist with Paul Rodgers, and part of Bad Company as well, Howard Leese has been on the forefront of rock and roll for over 40 years. Recently inducted with the rest of Heart into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, Leese has been enjoying a steady gig as the lead guitar player in the wonderful Raiding The Rock Vault show, with a year residency in Las Vegas. He'll take time off to tour with Bad Company for their 2013 summer tour.

It was a special thrill for me to talk to the man. I have always been a wildly devoted Heart fan (my first Heart show was in 1978 at the Capital Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey) and a real champion of guys like Leese — journeymen players who, while not always in the spotlight, are oftentimes the glue that keeps everything together.

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I just saw you at Raiding The Rock Vault. I loved the show.

Thanks so much. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun to do, people just love the show. Some people have seen it 10 times already! People keep coming back over and over, there’s just something about it. It’s a fun way to spend some time in the evening and audiences really seem to just love what we are doing. And that makes it fun for us.

I was especially taken by how you guys not only present spot-on reads of songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s, but also make things your own, throw in the nuances of your own styles.

That’s sort of unavoidable because every player has a style and personality. We love all the music in the show, so we try to do it justice. But when you play the tunes, they do come out with a little bit of our own flavor.

I thought “Smoke On The Water” was the perfect mix of a great cover but also lots of your style injected into the lead playing.I

Well, I take a bit of license there with Ritchie Blackmore’s performance, his style. I don’t exactly try to copy what he plays, and I throw in my little licks from “Magic Man” for the people who are paying attention, for the Heart fans. Certain things like “Hotel California,” though, you need to play exactly right. But something like “Smoke,” I can pretty much burn on.

What’s it like to have a residency in Vegas? I’m sure it’s got to beat touring in some sense.

It’s great for us. The audience comes to us. Actually, this week is the last of my shows for two months. I’m leaving on a tour with Bad Company. I imagine six or seven weeks into that eight-week run. I’ll be going, “Yeah…that other gig might be easier”(laughs). It’s really great though. Raid plays the same theater where Elvis Presley worked, so that’s cool too. The other thing about it that’s cool is that we have a huge production. You saw the show so you know. We have huge lights and lasers and all this stuff. That would be very expensive to load into a truck every night. I don’t think we could tour with that big of a production, we’d have to be like U2 or somebody like that.

I was also impressed with the costumes, I know that might be odd to comment on and that’s not something I’d even normally notice. But you guys had some great clothes’ changes that I thought were perfect.

That’s awesome that you said that. We have fun with the clothes. I get to actually pull out some of my 80s stage clothes from my days with Heart — those are my actual outfits from the 80s! We do have fun with the clothes and again that’s probably not something you’d have fun with in a regular rock show. There’s no other show like ours in Vegas. It’s a real rock show, it’s not a play. Ninety percent is us playing music on stage going from 1965 to 1989, and the clothes as much as the gear and the style of play all reflect that.

You mentioned going out with Bad Company again and I know you’ve been part of their touring band for a while now, also having been with Paul Rodgers nearly two decades now. What’s that all like, being part of a classic British band like that?

It’s really so much fun. Sometimes, I look around on stage and I see Paul Rodgers, who I’ve played with now for 16 years, but then I look over and see Mick Ralphs and turn to look at Simon Kirke, who was in Free, my most favorite band of all time and I think: “How did I get here? I’m just a kid from Hollywood and I’m playing in this classic British rock band!” But that’s my style. My style is British classic rock, that’s what I specialize in.

How is it playing guitar with Mick Ralphs?

Mick and I work very well together and have a great time. If you listen to our live DVDs, we have a little bit of that Keith Richards, Ron Wood thing going on.

The “ancient art of weaving” as Keith Richards calls it.

(Laughs) Yes, the ancient art of weaving. Yes, it’s our two styles mixing to create a tapestry of rhythm. He has a different style then I do so when we play together it really makes a cool, real organic natural sounding rock and roll, no baloney. Everything crafted by hand. And, of course, on their records there were always two guitars anyway, so we just go out and replicate that. We just split it up, on some of the songs he does the solos, some of them I do the solos, some we do duets together, two-part harmony solos. I also play piano on a couple of songs and Paul plays the piano on a couple of songs. It’s really an honor and privilege and a lot of fun to play with those guys and play those classic songs.

And this is Bad Company’s 40th anniversary tour coming to America this summer, right?

IYes, we have one date in Canada, but the rest here, yes. We are going out with Lynryd Skynyrd actually. In fact, we’re actually gonna be on the Tonight Show. Bad Company has never been on a late night show — better late than never.

Out of all the people I have specifically interviewed for Vintage Rock, I have never spoken to an actual Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. Can you tell me a little bit what being inducted and playing with Heart again was like?

Because we were gonna play and were working, we weren’t just going to go get inducted. We simply got together the day before, rehearsed and it seemed pretty natural. The band sounded the way we sounded in ’76. I felt good about that. I thought our performance showed why we were there, we sounded like the record and in that way it was fun. It had been about 16 years for me playing with Ann and Nancy but the other guys (guitarist Roger Fisher, bassist Steve Fossen and drummer Michael Derosier) hadn’t played with them for 30 years.

Yeah, I haven’t seen them in a very long time.

I’ve played with them a bit. We did a few concerts with an orchestra up in Seattle for a benefit to raise money for local schools. But no, they don’t do anything of a national level, they mostly play up there, most people don’t generally see them. But it was wonderful to get together with everybody. We still have that vibe that we had when we were together — from clubs to stadiums in about a year in Heart’s real rush of a ride. I was glad to see everybody lived to see the day. It was a shame Donna Summer passed away a few months before she was inducted.

But it really didn’t hit me what a big deal it was until we were at the thing and they had a film, they showed a film about the history of the Hall of Fame, showing all the past inductees like Ray Charles, James Brown, Jagger, McCartney, all these guys and that’s when it hit me and I thought, Wow, this is really a special honor. Everywhere I go people say, “Hey, you’re in the hall of fame!”

And you’re friends still with Ann and Nancy Wilson?

Oh yeah, we get along fine. I ran into the girls last year, we were all in Milwaukee at the same time. They were opening for Def Leppard and I was playing with Paul. We were all staying at the same hotel. I’m good friends with the Leppard guys and everybody had the 4th off actually so we all got together at the hotel for a big hang and watched fireworks.

Can you talk a bit about the Heaven & Earth project?

I’ve worked with Stuart Smith, who’s the leader of that band, on all three of their records. I helped finish the first record, produced the second and on this new one I wrote a couple of songs, I think I’m playing on like five of the tracks. Stuart loves to bring me in on keyboards. I’m an orchestrator, I’m good with doing the violin parts and I usually play some acoustic guitar with him here and there. We’re good friends and he brings me in to sprinkle some of my Mojo across the project (laughs).

The new record is quite good, really good in fact. They have a new singer, each Heaven and Earth record has a different singer. On the first record was Kelly Hanson who is with Foreigner now. The new guy’s name is Joe Retta and he’s really really good, a great singer. This record is on a whole other level. Great songs from a great rock band, they all play together, it’s the real thing. It used to be everybody did it that way…now everybody auto-tunes and cleans it up. This sounds like a real rock record from great players. It’s great and I’m real proud of it.

So after Bad Company, you’ll be going back to the Rock Vault, so to speak.

Yes, I’ll be going back. I love all I get to do really.

When I spoke to Joe Lynn Turner he said there were talks to bring Rock Vault out East, London even.

Well, we are supposed to be in Vegas for the year, but yes I could see this playing Atlantic City, lots of places. I had a young woman tell me the other day it could kill in Dubia! It all sounds good to me.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. I have been a huge fan of yours for years.

Well, thanks for saying that and thanks for this as well.

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