An In-Depth Interview with Steve “Lips” Kudlow of Anvil

Steve "Lips" Kudlow. Photo by Andrew Stuart.

Anvil has been around for a long time. Formed in 1978, they released their first studio album entitled Hard’n’Heavy in 1981 and they’ve been recording ever since. They had their ups and downs, though. They achieved fame and notoriety initially, but due to self management and an unforgiving industry, they have been oscillating in and out of the public’s eye, making almost nothing off their albums in the process. For around thirty years, they toured in search of a record label that would sign them, to no avail, which is kind of silly considering the huge impact they had on the metal genre (being cited influential to bands such as Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer to name only a few). However, with their ongoing popularity overseas coupled with the self release of their 13th studio album appropriately titled This is Thirteen (2007) and the catalyzing success of the movie Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008, dir. Sacha Gervasi), the band resurged and gained the acclaim they so badly deserved.

Anvil. Photo by Andrew Stuart.

Anvil. Photo by Andrew Stuart.

Arguably the hardest working metal band in Canada — hailing from Toronto, Ontario — Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead guitar, lead vocals), Robb Reiner (drums) and co. (the lineup has varied over the years) are proof that determination and perseverance do pay off, eventually.

Since then, Anvil has been touring regularly across the world, hitting festivals such as Download and SXSW (and stopping at venues in Canada from time to time), making cameo appearances on Sons of Anarchy, having song clips featured on The Simpsons (Season 22, episode 5), performing on The Late Night Show with Conan O’Brien (Season 1, episode 80) and even having songs featured in Rock Band 2. They’ve been a prominent act at the internationally renowned Wacken Open Air festival and are featured in the documentary WACKEN 3D – LOUDER THAN HELL, which is now playing in Canada.

Now, the band is recording their 16th studio album Anvil is Anvil, which is set to release sometime in early 2016. I was lucky enough to get some time to Skype with ‘Lips’ from Germany where he was just finishing up the recording portion of the album. We talk about his new album, the Wacken Open Air festival and in a bonus round of quick questions, I find out he does a spot on impression on Austin Powers.

“I’m excited as hell,” says Lips about his forthcoming album. “ We got it pretty much done in about three weeks, top to tail. We went in very prepared and we got it done quickly and efficiently.” This time around they enlisted the help of producer Martin Pfeifer, who has recently done work with German heavy metal act U.D.O. on their album Decadent (2015).

“Hey, listen I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says laughing – I can immediately tell he’s a very down to earth person and easy to talk to.

I ask if the writing process has changed much over the years: “We’ve had a number of different approaches in how we’ve gone about the writing process— but generally speaking it’s still bound to the same thing.” He tells me that in the ‘90s they used to do preproduction on a four-track recorder with a drum track before entering the studio. He reflects that this method was a waste of time however, and now they write up the album in the rehearsal space and go directly to the recording process afterwards.

When asked if it’s difficult to stay inspired after so many albums he replies: “No! It’s in you, I don’t know how you describe it. That’s what I do. I just pick up the guitar and start playing.” He stresses the fact that rock music is endless and will always be there, which is kind of the beauty of music. “Even if it sounds similar to something you’ve heard before, it’s still your way and you’re doing it a differently. One can argue ‘everything’s been done,’ yeah? So?”

One of the most interesting things about the new album is how it’s being sold. This time around, they’re using the crowdfunding site PledgeMusic (you can still pre-order the album here in Canada until November 1st) to bypass record labels and reach out directly to the fans. There’s something for every price range and the package vary based on how much is pledged. Items included in the package range from signed CDs to original artwork painted by drummer Robb Reiner.

European fans in particular had a rare opportunity to sing back up vocals on the new album with their preorder. “It was absolutely incredible” says Lips, “we had about 15 people — and they came from all over Europe — everywhere from Sweden, Italy, Germany, Belgium — it was just crazy (laughs).” The dedication of these fans is notable, he tells me, considering the fact that none of them had never been in a recording studio before. On top of that, they had to sing melodies and learn lyrics to the songs on the spot.

Steve "Lips" Kudlow. Photo by Andrew Stuart.

Steve “Lips” Kudlow. Photo by Andrew Stuart.

He tells me of the mutual excitement between him and his fans and goes on to say: “Man, I wish someone had given me the opportunity to do backup vocals on a Black Sabbath album or something. You know? I would’ve paid anything to do that!” I could tell in his voice that this experience really made an impression on him. He recalls a fan from Italy in particular: “she sang so amazing and so powerfully that during the actual crowd vocals we had to move her to the back of room because her voice was so powerful that it drowned out like eight guys! Just amazing!”

We then spoke at length about the album titles that are hallmark to the Anvil identity. I noted how they keep to the same formula and how it gives a hint to the humour they have in their songs. He related how the titles of the albums are chosen with care in an effort to remain consistent and how they run parallel with the bands style.

“People are carving on us for not changing,” says Steve. “You work as hard as you can your whole life to acquire a sound and a style and then once you get there, people go ‘well why don’t you change?’ It’s just— dumb ass. Completely dumb ass.” he says, laughing. “You know what I mean? If you’re happy with who you are and what you are, you don’t do things like that.” This attitude is explicit and the title ‘Anvil is Anvil’ is more than telling. The identity of the band is clearly a priority for Lips: “I’m very happy with what I do and that’s who I am.” And he assures us that “a zebra doesn’t change his stripes, and Anvil doesn’t change their music.”

Having faced so much adversity to get to where they now stand, it’s easy to see why Anvil is so persistent with their style. I tell him that his remarkable attitude is inspiring, to which he replies: “When you first come into the the world everything is possible, but as you get older you get beaten down and you believe all the negativity, therefore you don’t try as hard.” He assures me that it doesn’t matter what profession we’re talking about, be it music, business or anything else — “it’s all about losing that fear of failure.” He continues: “You find your happiness and do it until you die. It’s not about giving in to what other people say, or what they think or anything like that.” He adds that a really important part of what keeps you going is a friend or a group: “It’s hard to do it yourself.”

Next, we talk a little about the Wacken Open Air festival. I ask him about meeting fans from all over the globe. I begin by addressing a scene from Wacken 3D in which Anvil hangs out with the members of Nine Treasures, a folk-metal fusion band from inner Mongolia. He recalls how he was blown away by their use of traditional Mongolian folk instruments to play metal music, specifically the ‘morin khuur’ (aka horsehead fiddle): “I’ve never seen the instrument up-close. I’ve of course heard the instrument, it sounds vlike a violin. I was just like ‘holy shit!’”

On the festival itself, he tells me it’s one of the top 10 things to go see and when asked what it meant to him, he replied: “It’s being seen by thousands of people, I love it. It’s not the only festival in town, but it’s certainly the biggest.” Unfortunately for North Americans, metal is not what it is in Europe, he explains. In fact, he informs me that the American metal festivals Anvil has played do not even merit comparison: “[…] Bumpershoot, Rocklahoma and the Maryland Deathfestival, none of them even had a fraction of what Wacken is— or any festival in Europe for that matter.”

One of the reasons would be the primacy in North America of genres like pop or country music, so it’s easy to understand why metal heads refer to Wacken as “The Holy Land.” He assures us that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s just a different mentality. He asks: “Would you realize that Twisted Sister is one of he biggest bands to play the festivals in Europe? Why do they not play in Madison Square Garden?” There is little doubt that European audiences have a better appreciation for the genre, to the point that many American bands get famous overseas while having little renown in their home country: “You just have to go look at the roster for the Wacken festival, see how many bands are on it and realize that you’ve never heard of them. What’s up with that?”

Favourite band?: Black Sabbath.
Favourite food?: Weiner schnitzel. I’m in Germany, I can’t help it.
Favourite movie?: Austin Powers in Goldmember. I love that fuckin’ shit. I’m at a film festival and I see Jay [Roach], the director right? And he’s sitting there and I get pointed out to him. So I go up to him and I go: (in a Austin Powers voice that’s totally on point) “Yeah, baby. I’m Lips from Anvil. They made a mooovie about me. And the guy just fuckin’ lost it. (laughs)”
You’re stranded in a space ship, lost forever. What are three things or people you would need with you: My guitar, my wife and my son.

Anvil is Anvil is set to release sometime in 2016, date TBA. WACKEN 3D- LOUDER THAN HELL screens in Canada October 29, 2015.