Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Conversation with Mister Zero of The Kings

You might not recognize the name, The Kings, but I would bet that you have heard their music. Their hit, "This Beat Goes On/Switch Into Glide" has been a staple on the FM radio waves, and it is still in heavy rotation today.

Originally, Whistle King, the Kings formed in Vancouver in the late '70s. They played in clubs around Ontario, and in 1980 they entered Nimbus 9 Studio in Toronto where they were paired with legendary producer Bob Ezrin. Ezrin is perhaps most famous for the work he did with Pink Floyd on their The Wall album. It was he who produced The Kings Are Here which featured The Kings hit, "The Beat Goes On/Switch Into Glide". Other than that particular song, The Kings never really experienced much else in the world of radio play. They did, however get to tour with some of the biggest acts of the time period including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Bob Seger. In 1980 they reached the peak of their careers by headlining the major Heatwave Festival held that year in Bowmanville, Ontario. Earlier in that same year they were guests on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.

The original lineup of The Kings was David Diamond (vocals, bass), Mister Zero (guitar), Sonny Keyes (keyboards), and Max Styles (drums). Mister Zero was kind enough to share nostalgia with me concerning his days with The Kings, which continue up to this present day.


Did you get your name from the character in the Batman comic books, that later became known as Mr. Freeze?

The stage name came about when we were in the process of changing our direction from what was hippie/prog rockers to more straight rock with a 'New Wave' marketing influence. We were always rocking out, but decided we might have more success by jumping on the post punk bandwagon. We couldn't really be punk because we were too skilled as players, so we started working on shorter 'hit' type songs, and saw that bands like U2 had funny names so we went there too. We all contributed to each other's monikers and when my turn came I got the 'Zero' handle due to my negative attitude towards certain things. I didn't feel like it was accurate, but one thing is for sure, it wasn't meant as a compliment.

Please tell me about the Kings, before the band was actually called the Kings.

Our original name was 'WhistleKing'. We got our start when I first met Sonny Keyes in Vancouver and started writing songs. We realized we needed a band to go further, and I knew Dave and Max from high school back in our home town near Toronto. I had played with Max and Max had played with Dave. They were both out playing the pro bar circuit around Ontario but were not doing much original music. Older than me, I was kinda this upstart kid, but I managed to convince them to give us a try and that is when we all started to pitch ideas and we realized that Dave was a genius songwriter himself as well as an awesome singer, so that was how it began. We then tried getting gigs but realized we would have to do covers and so we did that, but the most we ever did was 50/50 covers to originals, we wanted to focus on our stuff. I remember seeing bands that would do some hits and then this shitty song, after which they would announce, 'and that was an original..',that never happened with us. We couldn't or wouldn't learn cover songs note by note, we always did them our way, and put our stamp on them.I am going to release an album next year of us live in a bar back in the day, it is quite revealing.

The Kings. Mister Zero at far left.
Who were your guitar influences as a young musician, and as a child, who did you see yourself emulating as an adult?

As a guitar player, I didn't really latch on to any one player when I started playing, but as time went on I did listen to the English guys, Clapton with Cream, Pete Townshend, Paul Kossoff, Steve Howe etc. Oddly enough, I wasn't that into Led Zeppelin, but I am now and consider them the ultimate rock band in terms of creativity and ability. The 3 players are all outstanding. Don't get me wrong, the Beatles are still the top of the heap, but the Stones and Zep are the other two peaks in that mountain range. I have always loved bands that had hits, and so among my faves are the Bee Gees, Beach Boys, Queen, Eagles, Doors, and even Chicago. All song bands with great singing. Loved Free, Yes, Tull, Genesis, Procul Harum, lots of prog rock.

Do you remember the very first album you bought?

Can't really remember the first album I bought, but my older brother was in a band and I used to watch them practice, and I thought it was pretty cool. I do remember thinking song writing was the key, more than playing ability.

Lots of guys could really play, but could they write? Nope. I used to hear some great guitar on AM radio in my Dad's car, two of the most killer tracks were Zep's 'Whole Lotta Love', the cut down version with that killer solo intact, and 'Mississippi Queen', by Mountain, you cannot to this day beat those two songs for guitar tone and attitude. As a kid, they were huge. Did get to see Mountain, never saw Zep. Started going to concerts a month after I turned 14 years old, was lucky enough to see a lot of the classic bands in their heyday. Kids nowadays have no idea of how great it was back then, this money based corporate music biz is bullshit. Unlike today, you couldn't buy alcohol at shows but it seemed that everyone was passing joints around. Didn't get into that at 14. But later, yeah.

With the Kings, what was life on tour like?

I don't think we toured as much as a lot of other bands, but we have done our share. It could be a grind, and I'm not sure we realized how fortunate we were to be with a major label in the US with a song climbing the Billboard Chart. It was all a logical progression to us. Work hard and get good, write some hits, and always kick ass. I'm not sure we had the killer instinct needed to stay on that ride, coming up with the amount of quality material is very difficult. But as far as gigs go, we were already pretty seasoned when our chance came to play bigger shows.

Mister Zero
(Nine Live photography)

"This Beat Goes On/Switch Into Glide is basically two songs combined into one... Was it written that way?

'This Beat Goes On' and 'Switchin' to Glide' were written around the same time, and were combined pretty early on. It just made sense, we had no fear of anything creative, so why not combine two tunes into one long one? The original version is what caught the ear of our producer Bob 'Pink Floyd' Ezrin, and he encouraged us to work on it and fix it so that it was even more commercial and we did that. We have recently put out that original version, and our dvd 'Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder' describes in detail how it all happened.

What was it like working with Bob Ezrin? Here you were, basically amateur musicians playing for the kick of it, and then suddenly you get stuck in the studio with the wizard from Pink Floyd's The Wall album. How did that all go down, and was it a smooth ride?

The reason we got to work with Bob Ezrin is because we weren't amateur musicians. We had written, rehearsed and gigged for years, and had hundreds of shows of all kinds under our belts. When opportunity knocked, we were absolutely ready, through hard work. Bob could see that. But he also saw how raw we were and how much guidance we needed. It was a joy going through the process with him and we absorbed it like a sponge.

As far as support goes, is there any difference between the Canadian rock fans and the American rock fans?

We have always loved playing in the US. And that is where we want to be. Canada is just too spread out, it makes for a very tough road. The fans are pretty much the same, although playing New York City is a breeze compared to some of the tough joints we used to play. One of the biggest compliments we get is when people say 'I never thought you guys were Canadian...', that means a lot to us. Its like we're legit.

How were you picked to be on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and what was it like to play on national TV?

We performed on American Bandstand through the promo dept. of Elektra Records and our manager. It was one of the biggest thrills we ever had. Mr Clark was a pro, but an absolute gentleman. He made us feel welcome and wanted. He sat in makeup with us and asked a few questions that he later used on the interview segment on the show. It was fun doing it because all the bands lip-synced and therefore there is no pressure to play right notes or sing on key, you can just go for it. We were on with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds in Rockpile and we blew them off the stage. In my humble opinion of course.

What are your general feelings about the music that is being produced today?

I doubt very much that any band from today will ever match the creative achievements of what has gone before. It all seems to be hype. Yes, I hear the hype and then check out the band or whatever, and mostly it falls short. Its more about fame than music. I think people still want rock music, but the corporations are doing their best to kill it. Country is sort of where classic rock went, but it is a watered down version of the real thing. A buddy of mine owns an indie record store which sells vinyl and cds and kids are still buying Beatles, Zep and Floyd. Why wouldn't they? The cream will always rise to the top and those bands set a standard that is pretty much untouchable. But you know something? Of all the great shows and concerts I ever saw, you know what the best one was, by far? Frank Sinatra. Hands down.

What are the Kings doing today... Anything?

Today The Kings are still at it, too dumb to quit is how I put it. We get a lot of positive feedback from the fans who can now find us through youtube, where we have a bunch of stuff available for viewing. The video I made for 'Beat/Switchin'', is incredible, I think, and we are so glad we never made one back in the old days because everything from then basically sucks. Our video shows us as we'd like to be thought of, as a band onstage kicking ass. We still write and record and perform as often as possible. And we still deliver the goods. There is no point in lamenting the negative side of the music business, we try and be thankful that millions of people know and love a piece of music that we created that has and will stand the test of time long into the future. How many people get to do that?


Pertinent Links:

The Kings Official Page

The Kings Facebook Page

You can purchase the DVD Anatomy of a One Hit Wonder at each of these sites.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My vinyl copy of 'The Kings Are Here' lists Mister Zero as 'Aryan Zero'. Just wondering what the story is behind that?