Uriah Heep – Bernie Shaw

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

Many milestones were interrupted and altered during the COVID shutdown including graduations, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. One such important anniversary was Uriah Heep’s fiftieth. Back in 2019 while on tour with Judas Priest, this world-renown, extraordinarily talented rock band was inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History. Spanning back the five decades, they have sold over forty-million albums and they have not slowed down. On January 27th Uriah Heep will be releasing their twenty-fifth studio album Chaos & Colour.

Catching up with Lead Vocalist Bernie Shaw, he revealed how he and bandmates Guitarist Mick Box (original member), Keyboardist Phil Lanzon, Bassist Dave Rimmer and Drummer Russell Gilbrook put this latest amazing rock record together, about their current live show, some details about their new video, a bit about his past, and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: How did the new album Chaos & Colour come about? I read it was made during the COVID shut down to try to add color through music for people. How did it all come together?
Bernie Shaw: You basically got it because we were shut down basically for two years, and of course 2020 was the bands fiftieth anniversary and we had a complete world tour booked and then out of nowhere, everything just got shelved. So, promotors all over the world were busy rescheduling for 2021 and of course, when that came about, they were rescheduling again for 2022 and by that time, all the bands were like trying to scramble for all the same gigs because there’s so many places you can play at. So many capacities and everything. So, that’s when the whole idea from chaos to colour. The chaos of the COVID situation and then the color, of you know, it’s just like going from a black and white movie to a color movie. Finally, with the COVID dying down and a lot of countries finally opening up was the color, and that was our savior because we are very much a live band. We always have been. We’ve always concentrated on touring every year. I’ve been with the band thirty-seven years now. We’ve never ever gone as long as more than what, six weeks at home without something coming in being at one festival or another tour coming in. So, to be cut off from our life blood for two years, we were happy to get out on the road.

SFL Music: You recorded at The Chapel Studios (in London) because you wanted to play together. As you said, you’re a live band. What would you say is the strength of going into the studio? A lot of bands were putting together pieces and emailing them to each other.
Shaw: I can’t even relate to that. I know that bands like Def Leppard, you know ‘cause Joe Elliott’s got a place down in Lanzarote and they’re spread out all over the place. The drummer records his bits and sends the files to somebody else and they do their bit. That is just so alien to us. We always make sure it’s A, residential so we are locked in. So, if we wanted to record from eight o’clock at night ‘til four in the morning, we can and we don’t have to disturb the neighbors. Or if we want to start at one o’clock in the afternoon and stop at nine o’clock, we can do that. We can make our own hours and we work best like that. We work best everybody in one room and you get the spillage of a little bit of the drums into the keyboard mics, and a little bit of the guitar into the bass mics and that’s how you get that, well people say it sounds like the seventies production. Well, that’s because everybody used to do that. You set up in one room. The only person that’s not there is me. I’m in the control room singing a guide vocal and once that’s sung, I only have to sing it once. If they want to go back and take another take, it’s still the same count of one, two, three, four, and as long as I come in at the right time. We never take more than probably three, four max takes. I mean, if you can’t get it all together in that you shouldn’t be in the studio in the first place, and because we’re such a close-knit band personally, personality wise, definitely the chemistry’s there that you’re in the same focus. You’re a little bit despondent like any other family and we have our time of shouting at each other ‘cause we’re a very democratic band. So, if somebody’s got one idea and somebody’s got another idea, it always gets put into the melting pot because we’re a very, very democratic situation. It’s never, hey I write the song and this is it. Even ideas that come in. Songs always get ripped apart and put back together ‘cause you’ve got to put the Uriah Heep stamp on it and that means if Dave brings in a song, Phil and Mick and me and Russ, we still have to have our little say. It might only be a little adjustment of an arrangement. It might work with these guys, but it certainly isn’t the way that we work.

SFL Music: You can hear that in your first single release “Save Me Tonight”. It’s an awesome song. You can hear that Uriah Heep, hard rock guitar riff with the keyboard solo, the vocals and the rhythm. It’s very catchy.
Shaw: It’s got all the trademarks in that one song. That whole album was recorded in seventeen days.

SFL Music: Wow!
Shaw: I can name you three bands that take longer than that to tune their guitars, but of course I won’t go there!

SFL Music: What would you say inspires Uriah Heep songs?
Shaw: I think just a lot of the Uriah Heep songs come from life experiences. Ken used to write a lot of fantasy and I think that still plays a part when Phil and Mick because they’re the main two that write together. I think that, that’s still a part of their thought process, but it’s just general, the things that you see around you. Situations. The two things that we do not write about is politics or religion. So there goes U2 for a start! We leave that out of our kind of songwriting stuff. There’s other things to concentrate on. There’s sometimes a message in there and that’s always been that good will always win over evil. If there’s anything that we write about, it’s always a positive message. I don’t think there’s any instances where there is negativity in any of our songs. Not like your death metal stuff and everything is today which I don’t mind. Whatever floats your boat, but it’s not Uriah Heep style.

SFL Music: Isn’t there sort of a theme with the album of “light. Love and positivity?” Songs like “One Nation, One Sun”, “Closer to Your Dreams” and “Fly Like an Eagle” were written in that vein?
Shaw: Yes, absolutely.

SFL Music: How did those songs come about? “Closer to the Sun” was for people to get back out, right?
Shaw: Yeah, but I don’t write the songs. It’s Phil and Mick and Russell put a lot into this album as well. My job in the band being the lead singer, but not writer, is interpreting what they’ve given me lyrically ‘cause I get a full reign on how to approach the song vocally, especially with Phil and Mick. We’ve been together for so long, when they write, they have my voice in their heads. So, they know my range and what bit is the strongest, and the melody wise, they’ll give me their best way of what they expect, but then they give me full range on how I want to properly interpret it. My job also I think, my two cents worth is always in the arrangement of songs. If I feel an intro is not long enough or too long or meanders a bit, I’m not afraid of opening up and going, can we try this? Or what about if we do that? Or what about that middle eight? It comes in a bit too early. Can we do this? All the ideas get listened to, but that’s usually my bit is the arrangement side.

SFL Music: What would you say is the secret to the longevity that Uriah Heep has had?
Shaw: Probably chemistry. The band has gone through, my lord, twenty-six, twenty-eight members over the years from 1970. Some people don’t realize that Lee Kerslake didn’t even join the band until the third album. There’s been a lot of people that have come in and for many, many reasons, either it be health or wrong direction or my wife’s saying I can’t do this anymore (he said animated) you know, whatever. There’s been so many people come in. Try to make their mark. Some of it stuck. Some of it didn’t, and then have moved on. Some have used it as a stepping stone to other bands as well. So, with such a history, there’s got to be some sort of glue and I think the glue is, Mick only has people that he thinks is on the same wavelength as him personally, mentally and musically because we spend more time together than, I’ve been married for seventeen years coming up and I spend way more time with the guys in the band. Well, I’ve been with them thirty-seven years and my first wife only seventeen, so that proves it right there (he laughed)! That was the one good thing about COVID. I spent more time with my wife and kids than I ever have because anniversaries, birthdays, the whole nine yards, we’re hardly ever there. So, COVID did have a positive thing for the band feeling of us actually reconnecting with our families.

SFL Music: Oh, that’s nice. What got you into music in the first place? I read you started off wanting to be a guitarist and then a bassist you worked with suggested you buy a microphone?
Shaw: That is right, but I don’t know. I’ve always had music in my life. I mean, ever since I was quite small. I remember my dad when I was about nine, took me just by the ear one day, he said, “come on. Turn the T.V. off. We’re going downtown,” and I ended up being in the Rotary Boys Choir. Now, I didn’t know I could sing and my dad was a really good singer I have to say. He was quite the vaudevillian sort of character. He was always singing. He just took me to this, it was like a small basketball court on the back of a building, and there was these twelve boys all smartly dressed and this guy at the piano, and my dad just said, “there you go. Here he is.” What, what are we doing here? The guy started playing the piano, like these chord structures and he said, “can you sing this? Da, da, da, da, da” and I went yeah. Da, da, da, da. It’s just something that I’ve never had to work too hard at. There was a natural voice there and even when my voice broke, I just got into singing. I mean, back in the late sixties, early seventies, everybody in Canada had a you know, you’re in a garage band of some sort. It’s not like England where everybody was playing football. We were all just in somebody’s basement banging out music and that’s where I tried to play guitar. I wasn’t very good. I admit now, well at that standard, but I just always seemed to be the guy that the people put the mic in front of. Oh yeah. OK, that’s my job, until Cold Sweat which was the band that you are talking about. I went to the audition as the guitar player, but when I heard the quality of the songs they were playing and the guitar player that was there kind of overseeing everything, I just kind of went, do I even bother taking it out of my case? These guys are so far above where I am, and the bass player, his name was Bill Kempster just said, “no, you’re right. You probably really can’t play guitar, but you seem to be able to carry a tune, and as well as looking for a guitar player, we’re looking for a new singer ‘cause ours just quit. So, this is his phone number. Phone him up and buy his mic. He’s got a Shure SM58 for sale.” So, I did and that started everything. Within about three months, we were doing the club circuit around Victoria and then around Vancouver Island and then the whole of British Columbia. Then the next thing we knew, we were in three- and four-month tours half-way across Canada and back. We’d leave in the Winter time for some reason and come back in July, and the skis were still on the top of our Dodge van. Probably ruined, but we cut our teeth on playing 70-minute sets or so a night for years, and that’s what everybody did back then.

SFL Music: Did you have formal training to last all of that?
Shaw: No. I just kind of learned the hard way. I used to smoke when I was younger, so I knocked that on the head. I’ve learned, do not try and shout or have conversations in a moving van ‘cause you’re talking over engine noise and your average engine is about 78 decimals. SO, IF YOU’RE TALIKING ABOVE THAT TO SOMEONE (he shouted), by the time it gets to the gig, your throats toast already. I learned by experience, and then when I joined Uriah Heep all these years later, the expectancy of what you’re supposed to do every night just went for me, through the roof. I’ve got to really take care of my voice now because we’re on a whole different level here. Me and Mick are both Gemini’s. Our birthdays are only a few days apart. Couple of years different, but not days and we just get along so well. He was the Best Man for my wedding and I just never wanted to let him down. Still to this day, I still go onstage and I look over at him and we both have great contact as do the whole band when we’re onstage. We have fun and we interconnect. It’s never a us and them or I’m playing to my audience. I’m playing with my friends here and we are putting on a show that I hope the audience becomes a part of. I don’t want them to sit there and go, oh yeah. That’s great. I want them to be sitting and sweating and shouting and singing like I am. I want them to be as tired as I am at the end of the night, and I know that with Mick at my side, they’ll get that show because we are that close.

SFL Music: Again, you are starting this tour in the winter throughout Europe. Are you going to be coming to the United States or is there talk of that yet?
Shaw: Not talk of it yet. I mean, the last trip State side was with Judas Priest of course which was an amazing tour. Musically, we’re pretty far apart, but we’re both British. We’re both coming up, well they’re coming up fifty years as well, and we’ve only got five guys on our crew. It swelled up to thirteen on this tour because of the production. They have like four tour buses and three trucks and all that. Everybody got on like a house on fire and that is so rare for a headlining band and an opening band. They treated us like special guests as we were advertised and they were true to their word. They were so lovely and usually, ‘cause you know, we’ve done a lot of shows with a lot of different bands, there’s usually one fly in the ointment. Maybe two even. It could be a crew member. It could be a driver. It could be a guy in a band. That whole tour, which was about ten weeks long, we all got on like a house on fire. They let us play for a whole hour. They gave us all the production we wanted. They gave us as much stage space as they could afford because they’ve got a huge production themselves. I’d go out with them in a heartbeat again, and we did good business because when we walked out onstage, the audience were going, quietly, but they were going, Priest, Priest, Priest, Priest which is not really what I want to hear, but by the time the third song is in, they were going Heep, Heep, Heep, and at the end of the night we got encore almost every night which for again, two band package, it’s not easily allowed or allotted in the time ‘cause it’s run so military like. They went, go ahead. Do it! They wanted it, and it seemed like the better we went down, the more they were anxious to get their own crowd and it only took an intro take that you know, Priest are Priest. The people were there for Priest, but a lot of people that have never seen Uriah Heep before got educated on, oh there’s another side of English rock. It’s not heavy metal, but its melodic rock which we hit them with night after night after night. So, I hope we can bring this production, the fiftieth anniversary to America, and Canada as well ‘cause we don’t play Canada that often and being Canadian, its closer to my heart, but that’s still up in the air. It’s the most expensive production we’ve ever taken on the road over here and it does cost because of COVID, everything’s more expensive. The trucking’s more expensive. The fuel is more expensive. The van is more expensive. Everything except our wages is expensive (he laughed). It’s the only thing that didn’t go up was the fee (he laughed). Paying for thirteen crew instead of five. It all adds up, but at the end of the day we go, your only fifty once or fifty-two officially. Bank balance aside, let’s go and just have fun. It’s almost a three-hour show. It’s two sets. You get a complete acoustic set and then the theaters requested a twenty-minute break so they can sell some alcohol and make some money. It’s nothing to do with us, but we have a break and then we come out and do the full 90-minute electric set. So, just when you think time is, oh wasn’t that nice. I wonder if they finished. No, you’re gonna get the full monty in twenty minutes time and by the end of the show the people are out of their seats ‘cause it’s a lot of theaters, and there’s hands in the air and it’s you know, rocking all the way home.

SFL Music: The video that you have for “Save Me Tonight”, (by Natalia Jonderko Śmiechowicz) that animated with the red sky. What inspired that?
Shaw: This was totally the artists idea and this came about so quickly. Less than four weeks ago, our manager came and he said, “look at this. Do you like this kind of animation that this girl’s doing?” She seemed to be very keen on working with other formulas and we were looking for somebody to do this new video because part of the recording contract is you give us the album. You give us a special single and you give us a video. So, we had to do it and people were gonna say, ok you can film at the sound check and we’ll get a couple cameras, and we’re going, just a minute. The whole stage set is got fifty everywhere and you’re trying to push a brand-new single from a brand-new album. That ain’t gonna work. Plus, we’re all over twenty-one. You know it. You know what I’m gonna say. Nobody wants to look at us. Let’s have something really clean and modern and we don’t need to have our faces all over the video. When we saw just the rough ideas ‘cause this girl even did the story board. We’ve never experienced that. We’ve never had that kind of contact. We went, this looks great! If she can interpret the lyric visually, I know it’s to do with COVID, but that’s unfortunately what the song was inspired about and when we saw it, we just went, what! This is it! This is how we want the song to be portrayed. Doesn’t need us in there at all. The name says it all and her ideas were just brilliant! I love her animation style as well. Really, really good.

SFL Music: Are there any more videos coming up?
Shaw: Well, this one’s only been out a week (he laughed).

SFL Music: That’s true. I wondered if there was something down the road. We’ll enjoy this one a while.
Shaw: Well, this has only been up on YouTube less than a week, and I saw it yesterday and it was over fifty-eight thousand views. So, people are taking notice and that’s great. I can’t ask for anything more than that. Well, yes of course, buy the album, but it all starts with grabbing their attention visually and then audibly that will come ‘cause we’ve never ever had animation like that in a video. It’s always been old hat kind of thing.

SFL Music: This is your twenty-fifth studio album. What would you recommend for an up-and-coming band or musician?
Shaw: First of all, always have something in your back pocket. I trained all through high school as a chef and my idea when I got out of high school was to move to Switzerland, take the Cordon Bleu course and probably end up in a kitchen at some Pan AM hotel in Dubai, but rock and roll kind of grabbed me by the shirt sleeve and put me into music. When I first moved in 1978 to England, I didn’t have a band. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have a place to stay, and the first thing I did was sign up to a cooking agency and within two days, I was working at some greasy spoon places in London. I did that for a couple of years because you’ve got to pay the rent. Very, very few people get to walk into a band with a recording contract and a retainer. So, today’s musician, always have something to fall back on just in case because no matter how good you are, chance in the music business probably more than anything, is the biggest factor. You can be the greatest musician or the greatest songwriter and you still won’t get seen without luck. Without somebody hearing you. Without somebody showing you the way. I mean typical, look at Ed Sheeran. Look at what he’s done from where he’s come from. Luck. You can go all the way back to Mick Mars from Mötley Crüe. He’d been in L.A. for so long. He even changed his name about three times before he found that ad saying, “loud raunchy guitar player” and again, he found the right band, but he’d been around the circuit for ages. Right time, right place, which I’m so lucky that it’s happened to me, and then just plain luck. I mean, to me it was Mick walking into the Marquee Club back in ’86 and listening to me sing. That was just pure luck. Right place, right voice, right band needing somebody.

SFL Music: Well, we’re glad that happened.
Shaw: Hey, me too (he laughed)! A lot of people you know, they get up in the morning and they go to their job to pay the bills, to pay their mortgage, to pay their rent, whatever. To be a musician, to go out on tour and ok, people think that you’re rich and famous. Well, definitely ok, the band is famous. Rich, far from it, but if I would have done it for the money, I’d become an accountant or a lawyer or something that is a little bit more guaranteed, but I get up every morning and I love what I do. Not too many people have that in their lives, so I never take that for granted.

SFL Music: Was there anything else about the new album that you want fans to know?
Shaw: Well, just that it’s really worth a listen. Russell doesn’t usually write songs. He puts his trademark on the songs by all means, but with this album, he’s actually come up with a few songs ‘cause some of his old bandmates got together and they wrote some songs together and they made a demo of it. We went, we can make those into Heep songs. Yeah, they’ve got some bokey catchy bits to them and they’re workable. So, except for myself, you’ve got like Dave’s on songs, Russ’s songs, plus Phil and Mick songs. So, there’s more of a collaboration on this album than ever before.

SFL Music: Wasn’t there also some collaboration with Jeff Scott Soto?
Shaw: Dave works with Jeff Scott Soto yeah, in L.A. They do their things by files. Its only demos, but they’re pretty damn good sounding demos.

SFL Music: Dave and Jeff collaborated on “Save Me Tonight”. Is that a demo version on the album?
Shaw: Yeah. Well, I call it a demo, but they worked to such a high standard. Jeff was with Sons of Apollo. I think he’s with three bands right now. Boy, but you know, that’s what you have to do in L.A. to make ends meet. So, at least he’s staying with music which is brilliant.

SFL Music: Please continue. You were saying about the album?
Shaw: We used the same producer. We used Jay Ruston again who did LIVNG THE DREAM (released in 2018) and again, when you’re working so closely and trying to do a performance, it’s good to have somebody behind the mixing desk that you trust and you have a good rapport with because if he says do it again and you think you’ve done your best, be it drums, keyboards or vocal, you’re gonna get a little bit upset. So, you’ve got to have trust that yes, you can do it better. Being Canadian as Jay is, we got on very, very famously ‘cause it’s the right sense of humor and everything. We cleared everybody out of the studio like we did on LIVNG THE DREAM. So, it was only him in the control room and me in the studio and I don’t think I took more than an hour and fifteen minutes on any of the songs before we called the boys in to go, time to listen. They were just you know, getting stuck into a glass of wine or sitting down to watch some T.V. and they’re going, what? Yep. I’m going, hey time is money! Time is money (he laughed). I’m so happy with the vocal sound. Jay got an amazing vocal sound from me on this album and all the harmonies are typical Heep. They’re right in your face. They’re not tucked back like some bands do. It’s not just a color, it’s an instrument, our four- and five-part harmonies. So, he’s really done the band justice on this one. It’s fresh, its powerful, it’s Uriah Heep.

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