Having gone through many varied permutations since their formation in 1978, Toronto metal legends Anvil are maintained by the core of childhood friends, singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner. The band is held together by bassist Chris Robertson, who has solidified the lineup since 2014. Now, Anvil is ready to mark 2020 with another classic effort, Legal At Last, available February 14th. The new album’s title, along with its eponymous lead track, alludes to the recent decriminalization of recreational marijuana in the band’s native Canada, which holds special significance to them.
I caught up with Lips, having last talked with him prior to the release of 2016’s Anvil Is Anvil. The band has since stood strong under the guidance of producer Martin Pfieffer, who reprises his role the third time for their latest album. We discussed the joys of touring Europe, the pertinent processes involved in Legal at Last, as well as looking back on the band’s chemistry as they’ve endured over four decades.
How was the last tour?
It was good; all touring is good!
You’ve toured Europe on the last record, Pounding the Pavement, and you’re about to go there again soon. What do you enjoy about Europe?
It’s just a great place to tour. People show up to the shows; that’s always a good sign (laughs). There’s lots of venues, lots of shows, lots of people, and lots of fun!
When we last talked during your American tour, the bands you were paired up with played this atmospheric, sludgy metal, and you’d said, “I find them completely not like us!” These days, what do you think about your pairings in Europe, as compared to a place like America?
Well, actually, they’re a lot better than the ones we’ve had in the USA. In most cases, I’ve never heard of these bands or their music, but they’re not death metal, which is a good thing (laughs). I like power metal, you know – stuff with melody; that’s always really good when it’s like that. But as soon as you get the cookie monster vocals, it’s hard to tolerate, at least for me. I don’t really enjoy it, and it’s not necessarily whether the music is bad or good; it’s just not my taste in music, that’s all.
You mention being into the more straightforward metal music. Back then, you and Robb played together in the early 70s, is that right?
At that time, one of the bands that really resonated with you was a local band, Thundermug. Did that start with their Orbit album?
Yeah! It’s funny you ask about that – very unusual that you mention Thundermug – but they were a band from the early 70s that did quite well in Canada. They weren’t very well known anywhere else, but they had a very interesting sound. They sounded kind of like The Who-meets-Black Sabbath!
It’s very heavy, yet extremely melodic with great vocals.
I know what you mean. When I first heard Orbit, I thought that album had a largely metal sound, but also, like you’d said, very melodic, with some power pop elements.
Yeah, that’s true.
In general, there’s a lot of great Canadian music that a lot of Americans like me may not know about. A bit later on, you had a band like Goddo come out, and Thor was still with Thor and the Imps at the time.
(Laughs), oh yeah! Getting that American recognition when you were coming from Canada was almost impossible. Even some of the greatest Canadian bands of all time, particularly April Wine, had a tough time getting heard in America. Not sure if you’re familiar with them.
Yup, I know them! (sings “Just Between You and Me”) – that one?
Yeah! That one, and dozens of other songs (laughs). They’re one of Canada’s most loved bands, I think – even to this day!
Looking back, do those early influences still affect your music even now?
Yeah. All the stuff I’ve listened to when I was younger is still very relevant to me. I don’t really listen to new music. I think I stopped listening to new stuff when I was about 30, and I’m turning 64, so, what can I say (laughs)?
When it comes to your latest album, how did that process come about?
I think from smoking some good pot. That’s usually the thing; I’d just smoke a big fat joint and start playing my guitar, and then afterwards, make songs out of all the bits and pieces that I’d come up with. That’s where it all comes from.
It relates to what you said in your press quote, “For a long time, we were looked down upon as criminals, but now, it’s okay to like us because we’re legal at last!”
Yup, we are (laughs).
You recently put out the music video for the album’s title track. Were you actively involved in that process as well, or was that mostly the director?
That was up to the director. This video focuses more on the music than the visual aspect. I don’t think there’s very much going on, in my opinion – just moving pictures with the band performing in the studio. It’s not necessarily conceptual or of particularly high production value, but it gets the job done!
In a way, the straightforward performance aspect kind of goes back to one of your early videos – the one for “Metal On Metal.”
Yeah, in a certain sense, it does. But that video was actually done by a TV show, [The NewMusic], who came to see us after we finished the album and filmed a bit of footage of us in the studio. It wasn’t a case of, “Hey, we made a music video for [‘Metal On Metal’],” but that’s pretty much how it happened.
In terms of gear, I remember you mentioning how you came up with the sound for Anvil Is Anvil. You really aimed to capture that Fender Twin sound, and you were also fond of Sennheisers when it came to mic placement. Has your set up changed much for these last couple albums?
I think it’s relatively the same. This time, though, I didn’t really notice what that we did, whether we used Sennheisers or Shure microphones. Ultimately, I don’t know how much difference that has made. I think it’s really down to having an engineer who knows where to place the microphones, and what he’s miking. The Fender Twin being miked up was actually right on the floor, and that does make a big difference. It’s a combo amp, and in order to get that proper bottom-end resonance, it’s good for it to be on the floor rather than sitting on a cabinet.
But like I said, I wasn’t really paying attention to what the setup has been for the actual recording; I guess I was too busy playing. I would say though that the last few albums have had some of the best recordings of my amplifiers in all my years, so I’m extremely happy about that!
For production, Martin Pfeiffer returns on this album, and you also have Jorg Uken, who mixed the last two albums. What can you say about your chemistry as you’re all working together?
It’s actually really cool because Martin is amazing in helping me record my singing. That’s his real expertise, other than picking and choosing the right takes when we play all the bed tracks, like, “Okay, that was good,” “Let’s keep that,” – those kinds of things. As far as Jorg is concerned, he’s an absolute expert with sound quality. He knows how to really bring out the sounds of all the instruments, and his mixing is absolutely amazing. With things like lead guitar overdubs, I do that with Jorg, and he’s awesome. So, it works out really, really, really well between the two guys and the band. They do a great job.
I feel that with these last three albums, you’ve gotten a solid approach down for both the sound and presentation. It’s like you’d mentioned – you don’t really notice significant changes, but at this point, you know you’ve locked in musically, so it’s cool how it all works out.
It is. They’re great producers. I love going down to Germany to record; it’s a very comfortable environment, and we get the job done very well!
Overall, how do you feel about the new album?
I think it will be just like the others; it will come out and satisfy the fans, and I know that fans of Anvil will continue to love us. Will it be a smash hit? Probably not. Will it sell 6 million copies? Not likely (laughs). But who knows? Anything is possible.
I find that, with many bands that have stuck it out all those years, they don’t take a step back and acknowledge how far they’ve come. But I’m wondering if you recognize your musical growth, as well as the strength of your friendships?
Oh yeah. I don’t take any of that for granted. It’s what it is. I mean, I’ve been playing with Robb since 1973 and we work really well together. Generally, I appreciate what we’ve got going, and how we’ve worked all of this out as a band. I can hear the growth of our music, but I can also hear when we went off track after a certain point and said, “Gee, that’s not what we could have and should have done.” Now, I’m a lot more aware of what we need to be doing, and what really satisfies our audience. That aspect is more important to me than whether we break through with a hit single. We have to make sure that our songs and the style of the band satisfy the people who made it possible for us to exist up to this point. Those are the things I’ve considered, and that I have an appreciation for.
Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
A big, long hug and thank you for being there for us, and for staying true and dedicated to the Anvil cause. It’s a real pleasure and an honor to be able to do all this. I’m thankful, and really, really grateful.