Howard Leese was one fifth of late 80s hair metal heroes Heart before hooking up with former Free frontman Paul Rodgers and this summer he’s sitting on one of the hottest melodic records of the year in the shape of debut solo offering Secret Weapon.
In the second part of a cracking interview with one of the world’s leading guitarists he talks Heart’s commercial success, his hook up with The Voice and an unexpected alliance with one of America’s fastest-rising stars.
rushonrock: Can you believe it’s 34 years since you joined Heart and how do you look back on your career with the Wilson sisters?
Howard Leese: It does seem like the time has flown by. I was in Heart for 22 years – a whole generation. During that time we played a lot of good shows and made some great records. When I left it was definitely time for something else. We weren’t touring that much so it seemed like the right time. Anne Wilson and I went out on a couple of summer tours as the Anne Wilson Band but Nancy wanted to stay home with her family. I flew home from the last Heart show on a Sunday and I was retired all day Monday but got a call from Paul Rodgers on the Tuesday. I played a gig with him on the Friday and that’s been my job ever since.
rushonrock: How did your collaboration with Paul come about?
HL: Paul had moved from the UK to British Columbia in Canada and he wanted to put together a band in North America without always having to fly the British based guys back and forth. He lived near to Vancouver and went down there a few times to scout out some talent but couldn’t find the right guys. Then his management company came down to Seattle and I had this little band called Brigade who played down there. We were doing real 70s heavy guitar hero type stuff and they came to see us play. And they said here’s the solution right here – all we had to do was fire the singer! But when we talked it through and explained he was being replaced by Paul Rodgers he understood the situation. I think. As a band we’d already been playing together for a while and it was just the right fit at the right time. That was 11 years ago and we’re still working together now.
rushonrock: On the last Paul Rodgers tour in the UK your fellow guitarist was a teen prodigy named Kurtis Dengler. How did that feel and what’s he doing now?
HL: I suppose Kurtis was serving an apprenticeship on that tour. He was being groomed as a big rock star of the future and our job was to show him how the big dogs run. He’s got a band in Seattle called Stella and they’re just starting to make waves about now. I’m sure he’ll go far. Paul’s manager discovered Kurtis a few years back and immediately identified him as a future star so that’s how he ended up on tour with us and I did have my doubts in the early days. We had done the Paul Rodgers gig with one guitarist for many, many years and I was a bit sceptical when there was talk of adding a second. When I found out the second guitarist was 17 I was very sceptical.
rushonrock: So how did it work out?
HL: Straight away I discovered that Kurtis had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the blues and classic rock and he could really play. I thought that was a great start. He had to learn a lot of stuff from scratch but already knew a lot of the music we were playing. So that was another plus point. But what was great about him was his ability to retain everything that I showed him. A lot of musicians – you show them something and they can play it well but then you have to show them the same thing again the next day. Not Kurtis. He picked everything up straight off. That was the real key for me and that’s when I knew we’d be just fine. As our working relationship developed I had a great time with him and I felt good about mentoring him. For his part he got some great experience!
rushonrock: Did you enjoy Heart’s mid-80s change of direction and the band’s transformation into melodic rock heavyweights?
HL: I did enjoy that period. Very much so. At the end of the 70s, when the original band disbanded, the Wilson sisters said to me that this band is broken and we want you to fix it. I was the person who picked out Mark [Andes, bass] and Denny [Carmassi, drums] and that line-up went on to taste more success than the original Heart. I was very pleased that I’d made good choices and that I’d done what the sisters wanted. Of course we had big hair and fancy clothes but that was the currency of the time. But we were a bit more muscular live than we looked on MTV and we had a pretty heavy sound on stage.
rushonrock: Do you remember that era fondly?
HL: You know, it was a golden time. That period between ‘86 and ’92 spawned some fantastic music and the kids now are starting to look like the audiences in the 80s with their big smiles and big fashion statements. They’ve heard these feelgood songs being played by their parents in the family home and they want a piece of the action. It was a special time for melodic rock and it’s great that music is starting to gain some recognition again.
rushonrock: Are there any plans to tour as a solo artist in between your Paul Rodgers/Bad Company commitments?
HL: There are no plans at this moment in time. I play everything but drums on Secret Weapon so for starters I’d need to get a band in and teach them all the parts I couldn’t play live. I’d need a fairly big production and at least a couple of keyboardists but if somebody out there wants to take me on a big tour I’m listening. At the moment we’re working so hard with Bad Company that I don’t intend to tour as Howard Leese.