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Interview: Keith Douglas of Tora Tora

Back in 1989, Tennessee quartet Tora Tora utilized what would become their signature southern-tinged blend of glam metal on their A&M Records debut, Surprise Attack. Amidst a gradually shifting musical climate, the album still managed to crack the Billboard Top 50 with such hits as “Walkin’ Shoes” (the first Memphis-based MTV entry) and “Phantom Rider.” By the early 90s, the band cranked out two more promising but ill-fated albums: 1992’s Wild America, and Revolution Day – the latter of which, although recorded in 1994, wouldn’t see the light until 2011 after a series of successful archive compilations.

Currently, the band is signed to Frontiers, revitalized on a steady touring run, and gearing up for the release of their fourth studio album, Bastards of Beale, slated for the 22nd of February. I caught up with Keith to discuss his formative days with Tora Tora, the making of the new album, as well as what he can gather from today’s music climate.

ME: Let’s start from the beginning. Growing up, which artists had a big influence on your musicianship?

Keith: Oh, man, a ton! Probably my first biggest influence was Kiss. I loved the guitar parts in their music and would spend hours and hours trying to figure out how to play them. These were the days before YouTube where you actually had to sit there and figure songs out. It was Kiss, Van Halen, Cheap Trick, and Foreigner was another big one.

ME: I can definitely see how the crunchy guitars and pop hooks came into Tora Tora.

Keith: Yeah, we were definitely fans of big crunchy guitars with melody, and a side of blues.

ME: How was your chemistry once Tora Tora came together?

Keith: You know, our drummer, John Patterson and I, were in another band doing some real crazy metal before that. Once we hooked up with the other two guys in Tora Tora, we were mainly playing parties and cover tunes. But we really clicked once we started writing our own songs.

ME: This year marks 30 years since the release of Surprise Attack. As a young fan, the first songs I’ve heard were “Phantom Rider” and “Walkin Shoes.” What can you tell me about the importance of those songs?

Keith: With “Walkin’ Shoes,” it’s all in that main riff. Growing up in Memphis, and being exposed to blues all the time, I was trying to teach myself some of those types of riffs. I just came up with something one day, took it to the other guys, and we wrote the music for that song in about 10 minutes. Then Anthony Corder and I sat down and wrote lyrics. For “Phantom Rider,” Anthony and I wrote that with a friend of ours named Thomas Howard. It’s a pretty heavy duty song, and just a really cool mood. Those are, for sure, the two most popular songs off that record.

ME: Some well-known bands you toured with from that era were Dangerous Toys, and also Alice In Chains. How was your experience with both bands?

Keith: I know, we’ve had some of the craziest opening acts. Alice In Chains used to open for us when we were headlining clubs in the Northwest. We’d played several shows with them and they were such nice guys! They were just getting their feet wet. It’s so cool, you know? I remember Anthony and I were working with somebody in LA writing, and we heard “Man in the Box” for the first time on the radio. We were like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe these guys are on the radio now!” They were our buddies, and we’d go hang out once they’d stop in Memphis. I’ve always loved their music.

Dangerous Toys, we’d toured with them for quite a while, along with LA Guns. That was a really great time and we had a fun experience with all those guys.

ME: 1989 was a very interesting year, since grunge was reaching its peak in the underground. Did you feel that the general rock scene was beginning to change, even at that point?

Keith: Yeah. We were on the same label as Alice In Chains and Soundgarden before they hit it big. I’d consider them to have been more on the rock side than alternative or grunge, but there were traces of it happening. Once Nirvana got popular by the 90s, that whole Seattle Sound seemed to change things overnight.

ME: Toward the early 90s, your album Revolution Day got shelved and didn’t get released until many years later. How did you make the best of the 90s?

Keith: That was about the time we checked out for a little while. There was such a change, and I think all of the major labels just shed. Everybody had signed so many bands, and once the music scene took a turn, all of the artists in our genre were dumped.

We took a break and stepped aside. Everybody went their different directions. Anthony and Patrick stayed active in music, but the rest of us took up different careers and had families. So, the way to make the best of it was to actually stay out of the scene. It wasn’t until 2008 that we first seriously got back together and started playing festivals. From the mid 90s on, that was a whole era of music that I just wasn’t a fan of at all. But the good thing is that now, there seems to be a lot of great rock music coming out, which is really cool.

ME: Your new album, Bastards of Beale, is coming out soon. This is also your first instance of new material after a series of non-album track compilations. What went on during the transition into making the album?

Keith: We’d always been talking about writing some new material and eventually, we were approached by Frontiers Records. That really gave us the push we needed to get this together and start working again. It became an exciting experience. Once we got back into it, it was almost like we picked up right where we left off. I feel like now everyone in the group has grown up a lot, you know? It was easy to write because I think we’re better in our craft than we have been. Especially Anthony. He’s stayed active. He lives in Nashville now, but he’s done a ton of writing with a lot of musicians and has worked with publishing companies. He’s really grown as a songwriter and lyricist. I’m really proud of the record; we’re really excited with how it came out!

ME: I’ll tell you this much – I got chills listening to your new stuff. I bet you’ve known a lot of bands who tend to lose steam with each release, but especially considering the time you took, you guys nailed it.

Keith: That’s cool, and I appreciate you saying that! That’s how we hope people would perceive it. We haven’t tried to go in one direction or another. We just really enjoy playing music together, the four of us. It’s what feels good and feels right, and that’s what pops out, you know? It’s one of those things where if you swap out a member, it wouldn’t sound the same. We’ve been together 30 plus years now; it’s almost like being married (laughs)!

ME: How was production handled in order to give the album its sound?

Keith: Our producer was Jeff Powell, and he previously did our Wild America record way back in ‘92. He worked at Ardent Studios here in Memphis. Now, he’s at Sam Phillips, which is an amazing historical studio. He was like, “Man, I just wanna put you guys in a room and try to capture what you sound like live on tape,” and that’s just what we did.

ME: Oh yeah, tape does give the general feel of albums a great sound.

Keith: Yeah, absolutely! Even on the drum kit, there’s very few mikes. It was basically us in the room, and he hit record, and we just went for it. I think that vibe really comes across, and he did a great job of capturing our live energy.

ME: Nowadays, when established artists put out a new album, they say something along the lines of, “I don’t care how much this sells, as long as it’s a solid product.” In today’s music climate, do you feel like you have much greater freedom in expressing yourselves creatively?

Keith: Absolutely! When we were on A&M, everyone was really conscious of what the next single was going to be, and what video MTV was going to favor. But with Frontiers, once we had an agreement, they said, “Just make us a Tora Tora record. Do your thing.” They basically just turned us loose and we delivered it to them. We would be working in the studio and asking ourselves, “Why can’t we do that? Who cares? If it feels right, let’s do it!” That kind of freedom is awesome, and nobody’s thinking we’re going for that big album. The only thing better is going out and hitting the clubs in places we haven’t played in a long time. Those people are coming out and they’re rocking. It’s just a fun, good reunion, and we’re enjoying it. As long as people are interested, we’re thrilled to be able to give them something new to listen to.

ME: Lastly, anything you like to say to your fans?

Keith: We appreciate everyone’s support so much, and having the chance to get out and rock with everybody. It’s kind of like a brotherhood these days. The essence of our genre involves sticking together, and it’s from a good time of rock ‘n’ roll when you’d leave the politics and all the other distractions of the world behind. The only other thing I’d like to say is check out Bastards of Beale, coming out February 22nd; you’re going to love it!

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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