Praying Mantis guitarist and founding member Tino Troy is an avuncular interviewee with a fund of amusing tales to tell… And when the opportunity arose to meet up with the great man in a central London boozer to shoot the breeze about the band’s latest album, Gravity, and, as it turned out much, much more, I certainly jumped at the chance, especially after a post by Tino on Facebook that I mistakenly misconstrued as a self-penned retireent notice had piqued my panicked interest… But more of that later.
Cheers, Tino – it’s a pleasure and indeed an honour to finally meet for a chat in person! Now that the dust has settled, How do you feel the new album has gone down – were you happy generally with the reception it garnered? “Yes, although it was always going to be a bit of a Marmite album – you love it or you hate it! (laughs). Or as you say in Australia Vegemite. When we do an album we always strive to give it our best. And (2015 offering) Legacy was such a hit we weren’t sure if we’d be able to better it or not. And even if we didn’t better it I feel we’ve at least put something out on a par with that album”
You seem in a very positive place currently. “I’ve got my mojo back! I’m writing a lot more after having a shoulder operation in late 2016. I was incapacitated for a while, and I had all this stuff on my iPhone – memo recordings… when you’re walking down the road after a few drinks you get a song in your head, usually to the rhythm of your footsteps… so when I’m pissed I often get the old phone out and start singing riffs into it! Or the idea for a lyric, or a melody. So I had all these ideas which I offloaded onto my iMac at home, and just kept them there. They all had crazy names, usually where I’d been, or what the song reminded me of. We all plagiarise stuff these days, don’t we?” (more laughter).
That’s the difficult thing, isn’t it? When you’ve been doing something for so long, and you have a certain style of writing. Do you discard much at that point, thinking it might not be a PM song, or do you work it into a Praying Mantis style? “Both really. Sometimes I’ll write something that’s so definite in it’s approach I think ‘no, I’ll leave this for a side project’. For my twilight years! But again it’s all going back to the iPhone thing. Last Christmas I put all this stuff into logic audio and worked up a timeline for all the ideas when I had that time on my hands. I was amazed to find I’d got over five hours of material. I started filtering them out and thought ‘well I’m going to work on four of these songs; so that’s what I did. I worked them up to pretty much a finished standard and they ended up on the album. In fact all the guitars remained. We just redid the bass and drums and put the vocals on top. That’s the great thing about digital recording these days. In the old days you’d do a demo on a four track recorder, then you’d go into the studio, all singing and dancing, but you’d never get the same feel. I don’t know why”.
I guess it’s the first time you feel the song coming together, isn’t it? You don’t get that feeling again. “Probably something like that, yes”.
So you say you brought four complete songs to the album – what about the rest of it? Does everyone bring one song in, or four songs, and they get worked on by the whole band? “There was one song, that all five of us had a hand in. It had been kicking around for ages, and it was going to be the bonus track on the Japanese version of the album. The song was Shadow of Love, but everyone loved it so we didn’t feel it could just be a sort of ‘throw away’ song so it made it on to the album”.
Having lived with the album for a while now, as I have, it’s interesting to hear that you were worried about topping Legacy. I think Gravity is a superb record – it covers a lot of ground but throughout it’s really the band doing what it does best isn’t it? “I think so, it’s very varied. We thought it might get slated because it was so diverse. But in this day and age where you can buy each track separately, or just stream single tracks, it isn’t so important. Even though vinyl seems to be making a comeback!”
Tracking used to be very important – I love the skill of sequencing an album. “So do I! I used to love sitting down and doing that!”
So much of what arrives in the Sentinel Daily office is digital, even if it is sent in the sequence it will appear on the finished album. I love it when track six sounds like the first track of side two, if you see what I mean. “Yes!”
You sound very natural as a unit on this record. You’re obviously very comfortable with this lineup now. “Everything’s just gone up a level really. We need to hit the next one now! The trouble is the band has been though so many hiatuses – is that a word? – it goes hot and cold, and it takes a while to warm up”.
How hard is it to keep the band going? “It’s been very difficult, obviously because of the changes in personnel, but now we’re more settled it’s a little bit easier. I find it difficult because two of the band members – the Dutch guys (drummer Hans in’t Zandt and vocalist John Cuijpers)– are in other bands and have other stuff going on. I’ve been talking to a couple of people about organising a tour, getting that together but in the meantime they’re getting offers and it gets frustrating because you can’t get into the bones of anything. I’d like to be working a lot more but obviously that’s their bread and butter. I’ve been a carpenter all my life and since I’ve had the operation on my shoulder – both shoulders actually – I’ve been out of action a lot. I had a knee replacement as well so for the last seven years as a self employed builder – I worked on site as well as doing the carpentry – I’ve not earned a lot of money. So I’ve decided to hang up my tools and concentrate on the music. I’ll be skint for the rest of my life but… (laughs). That’s what led me to put the post up on facebook that you saw”.
Ah, yes… the post! At first when I saw it I panicked and thought you were stopping doing the music! “No – I’m going to do a solo album as well!”
You could do a solo box set if you’ve got five hours of riffs to get through. “True! Although a couple of hours of that is probably going to be Mantis music.”
Will the solo work be in a similar vein? “No, slightly different. Some of it’s really off the wall”.
Will you sing on it? “I’ll do some singing on it. I don’t really rate myself as a singer anymore, although funnily enough people still ask me why I didn’t carry on singing since the days of Time Tells No Lies. And listening to it, it wasn’t that bad!”
If you listen back to a lot of the ‘also-ran’ bands from the heyday of the NWoBHM, and some of those that were more succesful as well, truth be told, a noticeable thread is the lack of real, quality vocalists. Was that why you sang on that record? Was there no one around who could do it better? “I remember being backstage after an Iron Maiden gig at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. Peter Mensch, who I think was handling Def Leppard at the time, approached me. He said ‘you guys are fuckin’ brilliant, but you need a front man! Go down that route and I’ll sign you’. We thought we were on the crest of something at the time, all a bit cocky, and we thought ‘nah – what does he know?’ (raucous laughter). In the end we decided he was right. But by then Arista, the label we were on at the time had decided to let us go, and our management were useless. They were sort of hand-me-downs from (Maiden svengali) Rod Smallwood, who had a partner, Bob Keen, and they managed Steve Harley from Cockney Rebel. Rod had his vision for Maiden, put all his eggs in that one basket, and went for it”.
And you got the cast offs? “Yes”. We both laugh.
I’ll say it if you don’t want to! So even then you didn’t pack up the carpentry? “Well, I was my own boss, so I’ve always been able to take time off when I’ve needed it. But it’s always been in the background. You have to keep the money coming in when you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed. It’s difficult. I fell sometimes into the category of doing too many things too well. I’ve always picked up trades really quickly. But you can’t say no to the work. Obviously being a guitarist you have to be careful being a builder and a carpenter. I’ve had a few near misses with electric planers and circular saws!”
There’s only room in heavy metal for one Tony Iommi! “That’s it! I remember working on site once and a bloke kicked a planer against my hand. It made a sort of flat spot on my finger, which has grown back now but literally my musical life flashed before my eyes when it happened”.
There was a period after the NWoBHM died where traditional hard rock and heavy metal bands found the going very difficult indeed, certainly in this country. We know that you had a trade to fall back on, but how hard was it during that period to keep the flame burning? Was it just Japan that kept the band going? “The dark ages! We all had other things going on, and at the time Dennis Stratton was with us and it was all a lot of fun. He had his pub band which he still does. But the Japan thing didn’t start until a bit later, the early nineties when Paul Di’anno was trying to get interest in his band, Battlezone in Japan. He went to the big cheese over there, Masa Itoh, who wasn’t really interested. But he was interested in Praying Mantis with Paul and Dennis in the band. It was good fun. We played a load of old Maiden songs too. In fact we played them better than they did!” (more infectious laughter). But that’s what gave us the springboard into Japan. We signed a deal with a label over there, Pony Canyon, and released albums every couple of years. It was nice. But people assumed because we were tied up in Japan that we weren’t doing anything else”.
So how did you end up signing with (current label) Frontiers? “Well Pony Canyon decided to concentrate only on the Japanese market and folded their international division. We’d already licensed a couple of albums to Frontiers so it all sort of seamlessly merged together”.
And there, sadly our time comes to an end. I could have talked to Tino long into the hot London evening, but we’ve both got other appointments so we leave it there. but something tells me we’ll get this man back into the pages of Sentinel Daily for some more reminiscing in the not too distant future!
Gravity is out now in Frontiers Music…