Interview by Teresa Hopkins
Music appreciation came early and naturally to MOTHER ROAD‘s Chris Lyne. Born and raised in West Berlin, Germany, Chris reflects on his childhood with very good memories. His mother sang in a choir, his dad played the guitar, and together with Chris and his brother, the family made a lot of music together in their house. In a country that has always been bigger on pop music, Chris’ dad introduced him to rock-and-roll, and Chris has been “in love” with the genre ever since. Hearing the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ at around 11 years of age drove Chris crazy, and he wanted to learn to play the guitar too. No longer able to stand watching their son performing in front of a mirror with a broomstick, his parents supported his new passion: Dad bought him his first 6-string and taught him to play chords. Those who had the biggest influence on his personal style include Jimmy Page, Paul Kossoff, Gary Moore, and later, John Sykes—“not just because of their great guitar playing,” he says, “but because of their ability to move you with music”.
Chris started playing in bands around the age of 15. But he was always a big sports fan, too, playing soccer and ice hockey from an early age. Apparently he was rather gifted in sports as well as music, and a decision eventually had to be made between making music or becoming a professional ice hockey player. With his parents’ blessing, Chris chose the guitar over the hockey stick.
In 1986, Lyne formed his first “real” band with singer Tommy Heart. Word of mouth and killer live shows made HEARTLYNE local heroes in the West Berlin area, and through radio airplay, they became in demand from France, Brazil, Japan, and the USA. HEARTLYNE began recording their AOR/Heavy Rock album “No Retreat, No Surrender” in 1987 at the famed Hansa Studios before even getting signed. (The band’s one and only album has remained popular through the years, due to bootlegging and the eventual remaster and re-release in 2009.)
The ’90s began as Chris formed the metal band DEADLY TOY with vocalist Mischa Mang. His guitar work with the band was dynamic, frenetic, and melodic, very distinctive of that era. He recalls: “At that time, you had to play like Yngwie Malmsteen or Steve Vai…all my friends and bandmates hated Led Zeppelin and stuff like that then…” He adds that while he has always been adamant about not trying to copy anyone else’s style or sound, he was playing more from his head than his heart in those days. Audio recordings of the band are rather elusive, but some songs from their live shows are on YouTube, to give you an idea of where Chris is coming from on the subject.
Having remained friends with Tommy Heart, Lyne teamed up with him again a few years later to form SOUL DOCTOR. The popular hard rock band released six noteworthy albums (including a live album in 2008), toured the world, and played big festivals such as Wacken Open Air and Sweden Rock.
While still a member of SOUL DOCTOR, Lyne stayed quite busy behind the scenes and at the controls as well: working in his studio as mastering engineer for album reissues, such as AOR Heaven Classix; in TV and film production with music scores and soundtracks, including 2012’s Story of A Dean Man; German language dubbing and vocal coaching; session work (one of the most recent is EZ LIVIN’s “Firestorm”) and much more (the man’s resume is really something!). In April of that year, Lyne performed in the Gary Moore Memorial Concert at the Halford Club, Berlin and on AOR Heaven’s charity 2-CD sampler, Rock For Japan (released April 8, 2011) to benefit victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan. Somehow he even had time to get together now and then with friends, including John Sykes, in what he calls a fun project called LIZZY RELOADED, performing covers from one of their favorite bands, THIN LIZZY.
After 12 years with SOUL DOCTOR, Lyne made the decision to leave at the end of 2011. He’d learned a lot about the music business, and as much frustrated him as enlightened him. He was ready to take a break and begin a new journey. During that time of reflection and introspection, he thought about what kind of a band he really wanted to put together. Having developed a fondness not only for rock & roll but also Motown, soul, and blues music, it was important to him to write and play music with the same heart and passion. Also vital was finding a group of like-minded guys who were more into making great music as a unit than in showing off individually.
Lyne’s first mission was finding the right singer. He and his manager got responses from a lot of talented guys, but none quite fit to what he had in mind. One day his manager played him some music from the band STEELHOUSE LANE, and he liked the voice of Texas, USA native Keith Slack (who also sang with Michael Schenker Group) immediately. When they later found a bootleg from the singer’s old band, MUDPIE, Chris was so impressed that he contacted Slack without hesitation. Thanks to modern technology, the guys sent each other a couple of songs over the internet, and both of them were equally delighted with what they heard. Chris realized their songwriting talents had chemistry unlike any other writing team he’d been involved with in the past: “We have the same passion when it comes to music. All the great Motown, soul and funk stuff…I never have the feeling that we are from different countries.”
Having listened to his 2007 solo album, “Bent, Not Broken”, it sounds evident to me that Keith can sing comfortably in just about any musical genre. Chris calls Keith “one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met in my life. His voice is a gift from heaven!” I asked him what surprised him most in getting to know Keith: “His incredible talent and his character. It is not easy to find a loyal partner these days in the music business, especially not if you will start with a new band. We have a real friendship.”
Later, Chris says, he and Keith threw some ideas around to come up with potential band members who would give them an honest and real commitment. Chris introduced him to longtime friends Zacky Tsoukas (SOUL DOCTOR, ERRORHEAD) and Frank Binke (KINGDOM COME), and they were soon recruited for the band’s rhythm section. Chris worked to find a good Hammond and piano player, and the multi-talented Alessandro del Vecchio was on his wish list to fill the slot.
Both Lyne and Slack have a lot of experience in the studio and a real knack for engineering, and each owns his own studio for composition and recording. They initially relied on the internet or the telephone for much of their communication and ideas exchange about the music. In January of 2013, Keith went to Berlin for four weeks to work with Chris, going over the parts and arrangements and also writing and recording as a team. “The songs we have written together in the studio have the special magic that can only happen when you work together in the same room,” Chris says. When it came time for Keith to return to America, they still needed another song to complete the album. Playing around with a riff that Chris had, the guys wrote ‘These Shoes’ in one day. Later, he recorded Zacky’s and Frank’s drum and bass parts, then visited Alessandro in Italy, where they recorded the Hammond parts and some backing vocals in his studio. While he admits that “it’s a huge responsibility to produce a record,” Chris adds, “I think I am really open to what the other guys want to have with their personal sounds.”
The music seems to have come together fairly easily without oceans and borders to deter it. “The actual writing and recording didn’t really take long at all,” says Chris Lyne. “Putting the rest of the pieces together took up the most time. In a new band there’s a lot to take care of as far as finding the right guys, management etc… Starting out fresh again is always a lot of work, and we didn’t want to settle for anything less than excellent.” After shopping around a while for a record label and the right deal, they opted to form their own (Road Songs) and worked with AOR Heaven for distribution.
Stellar talent, killer songs… But what to call this group of guys dedicated to the kind of rock & roll they grew up with—the kind of music that continues to inspire and delight music fans today? Chris and Keith were bantering around a few names, and Chris suggested “Mother Road”—after none other than the legendary US Route 66. Chris says of the conversation, “Keith had never heard of that name. He said, ‘WTF? The guitar player from Berlin knows more about American history than I do!’” Keith wasn’t sold on the name at first, but it grew on him with time, and the rest is pretty much history.
MOTHER ROAD helped fuel the Classic Rock Revival with their debut album, “Drive”, released on May 23, 2014 to raves from critics and fans alike. With respectful nods to bands such as Bad Company, Free, Mountain, Led Zeppelin, Whitesnake, Deep Purple, and The Black Crowes, “Drive” is everything you loved about that era of pure, electrified rock and roll, but make no mistake—this is not a band that merely coasts along the tracks of their predecessors. MOTHER ROAD truly goes the extra mile in songwriting, performance, and production quality. This is evident within the first few seconds into the album, and each song that follows gives the others a run for their money.
The Amazon stats for “Drive” were impressive for a debut. In the USA, it reached #6 in the Blues and Rock Best Sellers, #23 in Rock Bestsellers, and #35 in Classic Rock Bestsellers. On Amazon UK, the album reached #24 for Hard Rock and Metal Bestsellers and #35 at Amazon Germany for the same category. NEH Records ranked “Drive” #7 on its May 2014 physical CD top sellers.
Only a few short months after the release of “Drive”, the guys were back in creative form again to work on a follow-up to this terrific debut. This time, Lyne spent a few weeks visiting Slack in southeast Texas to write, record, and brainstorm. At the time of this posting, the tracks are now recorded, and Chris is actively working in the studio on mixing and other production. Before things got too busy, I managed to get him to settle down just long enough to fill me in on some of the history and happenings of the genesis of the band and what he does. I’ve paraphrased much of it to this point, but thought you might like to read a bit more direct-line questions and answers, to which he was kind enough to oblige.
Chris, this is by far one of the hottest debut albums I’ve ever heard. And every review I’ve read about “Drive” has given it much praise. Fans and critics alike are saying WOW!
CL: The response to “Drive” from the press, radio stations and fans was incredible! Of course, we’re not reinventing the wheel, but we worked really hard to make sure there were no filler songs on this album—only really good songs from the heart, played with a lot of attitude.
Congratulations on your endorsement with Mesa Boogie!
CL: Thanks Teresa! It’s a big honor to get this! I have always used Mesa Boogie in the studio. I am the owner of two very old Rectifier amps from 1989 and they still sound incredible. I am proud and happy to be a part of the Mesa Boogie artist family. They give me worldwide support.
You’re a really busy guy—you’ve done a lot of work not only with your own bands, but in writing and performing music scores. How did you first get into that? Do you still work in musical aspects of some film and television productions?
CL: I am an engineer and I have my own my personal studio. A friend of mine who also works in his studio for a lot of film companies mentioned one day that he needed an engineer for a film production. It is a completely different thing than working on music for your own band; you must be very flexible in your style of playing. But I said yes, and everybody was very happy with the result. Later, I met some film composers who needed real guitars for some stuff, so I played my ass off and they loved it. When it comes to film music, I work together with a team of composers, and yes, I write and perform music in some of the movies. The most exotic thing I ever did for that was playing a Theremin. I’d never played a Theremin before, but I worked hard on that and the result was really great in the end!
I understand that you also did some session work in 2013 for the band EZ LIVIN’ on their album “Firestorm”. Having become more familiar with your sound and style, I can pick out many of your parts. How was the experience of working with Hans Ziller and the band?
CL: Well, that was a paid part of a studio job. Hans contacted me over my manager and ask me to play rhythm and lead guitars on the record. He also wanted me in the band as lead guitarist for live shows. Although I play maybe 85 % of all guitars on the album, I am not really close with the songs. I recorded all the guitars in my studio, and have never seen personally any other guy from EZ Livin’.
What is a typical day for you?
CL: Wake up, drinking a good espresso, watching the news on TV. That’s how it starts mostly. I don’t often have a day without music or studio work.
Well, then, what would you do on a day off?
CL: I love nature and animals. Going out for a bike ride in the forest. In the winter time, skiing in the mountains and all those things.
Are you more apt to rely on inspiration for writing, or can you set aside specific times and produce ideas and songs?
CL: I don’t set aside a special time, but a lot of inspiration comes when I play guitar. Sometimes it’s when I’m driving. When I have an idea I try to capture this soon on a device like my iPhone or something. I sing the melody, a short piece of groove or whatever on my iPhone. You know when you try out some new pedals and you have found a great sound then it will come sometimes by itself. Sometimes you play a riff or whatever and it goes straight away. Other times, it is better you go to bed! It’s not always easy, but I know that nobody can write a great record in two weeks.
How much creative control do you generally have in putting together an album from start to finish? Are all band members involved in songwriting or just you and Keith?
CL: Keith and I are the main songwriters, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the band isn’t contributing their fair share to the musical sound. We are really open as far as songwriting goes. We give each other the space to create and then come back later to trim the edges off or change a few things. Alessandro, Zacky and Frank bring a lot to the band. It is their individual sounds, personalities and passions that help make the record what it is. This is a band, not a project, and everybody is open for a good song, no matter who writes it.
I have to say that in addition to being impressed by your guitar playing and style, I was also very impressed by the sound quality of this album. Bravo!
CL: Glad that you like it! My recipe for “Drive” was one true blues rock band from the early ’70s, a cup of obvious influences from the members, and a pinch of what is current in style and production.
Do you have a preference for either analog or digital recording? How much difference do you find that it makes?
CL: I am a big fan of huge analog sound, and for the recording process I try to use analog equipment as much as possible. It’s organic and has a lot more dynamics. Also very important is what kind of microphones you use for recordings. Real fingers on a real instrument—that is more natural and the only way for me. When it comes to the mix, I use my Pro Tools system of course.
The Gibson Les Paul is a big part of your distinctive sound, but I know that you don’t play them exclusively. What do you like in particular about your guitars in terms of sound or general feel?
CL: The Les Paul is definitely my main guitar. But because it’s not always the best guitar for all the sounds I want to create on some of the songs, I use a lot of different guitars in the studio. For example, on ‘Dirty Little Secret’ you’re hearing my Telecaster as the main guitar, and for the chorus I back up the Telecaster with a Les Paul to make the sound a little fatter. Together in a song, they’re one of the best sounding combinations for me. I love my Gretsch too. It has a Bigsby tremolo and a great sounding TV Jones FilterTron pickup in the bridge position. It lends a completely different sound. Hey—Billy Gibbons uses the same setup, and it’s a pretty cool Blues Rock guitar!
Like many guitarists, you started out on an acoustic, and you’ve continued to enjoy playing and progressing with that. Some of my favorites are ‘The Ocean’, with SOUL DOCTOR, and now what you’ve done with MOTHER ROAD on ‘The Sun Will Shine Again’ and ‘On My Way’. I can hear some Led Zeppelin influences in them. I always felt that Page’s talent would really shine on an acoustic. Do you find that overall, you play yours as much as the electrics?
CL: Oh yes—Jimmy is an amazing acoustic player, but he is an outstanding electric player too! He is the master of the little licks between the rest of the music. I never heard any other guitar player make such amazing arrangements for guitars as he has. ‘The Rain Song’ is my all time favorite. I love the acoustic guitar too and I play a lot of acoustic music. In my opinion, if you master [that], it’s a lot easier to play electric guitar and it will make you a better player. There’s no amplifier and only your hands make the sound. ‘The Ocean’ was the first song I wrote completely for acoustic. I play a mandolin solo and we have recorded a real orchestra. Here you can hear my love for the acoustic side of Led Zeppelin. I love that song and I am proud of it.
In comparing the big record labels to smaller, independent ones, what do you feel are the good and bad points? If it were your choice, would you prefer more financial backing and promotion with the possibility of greater success as a result, or do you think that, with more creative control and the resources available today, a band or artist is better off staying independent?
CL: This is not easy to answer—I mean, a band and its musicians need money. Everybody has to pay their bills. Also, a production cost money. If you go on tour and have the slot as support act for a bigger band, you need money. It is not really possible to get the chance for a bigger tour without a proper label backing you up. But it is really important for a rock band to go on tour, especially in these days, because the big radio and TV stations aren’t giving this kind of music support. You don’t lose your creative control over your music, but if you will reach more people, I think is it better you have a good record label that believes in your music and has the power to promote it well.
How does the music of Mother Road and your experience with the band members differ from projects or groups in the past, and what do you feel is better this time around?
CL: All of the guys in MOTHER ROAD are really talented guys—I’ve never played with so many in one band! Normally I would say that doesn’t work, but here it is only important that we have great songs at the end without the typical ego shit. The music I write together with Keith is exactly what comes from our hearts. That’s more evident here than my experience with any other band. Music has always been the voice and sound of the soul, and now I am at peace with myself musically!
You’ve been working a lot this year on songs for the second album. Will you be putting it together in much the same way as the first?
CL: Why not? The only thing different is that Keith and I are now working together on our songwriting from the very beginning. When we started with “Drive”, I had a couple of songs written. Now it feels a lot better when we write together. While I visited him for 4 weeks in the USA, we captured a lot of great ideas for the next Mother Road record.
Are there any plans to take MOTHER ROAD on tour?
CL: Of course! We can’t wait to take this band on the road and play our asses off! But I think it will only be possible after the second album release. In these days, with a new band, you must have patience.
In your overall experience, traveling and playing live in clubs and arenas, what have you liked best or least?
CL: Oh, I like both of them! I have played the biggest festivals in the world, like Sweden Rock or the Wacken festival, and those were great experiences. But I have also played small sold-out clubs, and this was fantastic too! I think if the band has a special vibe on a show and plays very well, it doesn’t matter if there are 10 people in the crowd or 10,000!
What do you envision in the future for MOTHER ROAD?
CL: I have a great team around me, but you never know what’s going to happen in the future—and less than ever in the music business. We try to go our way without losing our passion for the music. If you are a slave of the money, you’ll lose your passion for the music. It is not the easiest way, but for me it’s foremost about the music, not only money and business crap.
What are some projects or dreams yet unrealized that you would like to accomplish?
CL: The only dream I have is to make this band bigger and more independent so that we have a chance to survive. Mother Road is a great band, and I hope that the people in the business will realize what talent and potential this band has.
Chris, thank you ever so much for your time and your candor in answering my questions. Here’s wishing you and the rest of the guys in MOTHER ROAD every happiness and success!