In September 2008 Trouble drove from their home base in Chicago all the way to Hamilton, Ontario, kicking off the second leg of a tour booked months before. When the dates were set, long-time Trouble singer Eric Wagner still fronted the band, but by summer Wagner was already history, by his own choosing, and Kory Clarke (ex-Warrior Soul) had stepped up to the mic. Clarke wasn’t the most obvious choice to replace Wagner, but he has a harsh, heavy vibe that works well across Trouble’s stoner and doom fluctuations if you give the mix a chance to brew. The Hamilton date was (sadly for me) my first time seeing Trouble in what’s now quickly approaching two decades of Trouble fandom. I missed hearing Wagner, for sure, but the intimate performance (I was one of maybe a few dozens in the ‘crowd’) made it clear that Trouble exists beyond him, and I could go all nostalgic over songs like “At the End of My Daze” without pouting too much over the unaccustomed vocal textures.
Since that night, Clarke and the rest of the band have been around the US and overseas, released three somewhat new CDs in North America, and hunkered down in the winter cold to ready the next full Trouble album. But it’s not surprising that it’s their live performance that convinced me a post-Wagner afterlife is possible for the Chicago doom pioneers. I admit – I was sceptical. As it turns out though, playing live has been key to keeping the band alive. After many years of what looked to be permanent down time, it was a live show that got Trouble back together. Guitarist Bruce Franklin explains: “After Plastic Green Head we kind of folded the band in ’96 and didn’t really get back together till some time later. And that was just by chance – there was no plan there. It was a quirk of things where we were invited to play a one-off, get back together for one show. And we did it and things went so well and there was such huge turn out that we actually considered, ‘hey, maybe we should get back together.’
“Most of the time the band breaks weren’t by our choice. There’s been times where the band didn’t split but there were like three years in between an album and that was kind of more business problems than anything – personnel and business problems. I think we had three years in between Run to the Light and the self-titled Trouble album but we were switching record labels, switching personnel in the band, and taking care of business things. And that all happened again in between Manic Frustration and Plastic Green Head. Then the band broke up and we weren’t talking about continuing even though eventually, six years later, we got back together. But at the time the band was done.”
Then a 2001 hometown reunion turned things around. “It was a guy named Scott Davidson who works at Rebel Radio in Chicago – he promotes concerts, he plays in bands. Every year he has a party/concert for his birthday, but like a pro thing, and he asked us to get together to play that. He said he’d pay us well, and that it would be a big deal. We said okay and one thing led to another and it was covered by both the Chicago newspapers and the place was sold out and it was crazy. And we had fun too. At that time that made us think about getting back together ’cause we actually enjoyed it. And some of the stuff that hadn’t been so enjoyable when we decided to quit was maybe past or at least given a rest for some years and we were able to pick it up again.”
Live show magic also motivated one of Trouble’s most recent releases, the album Live in Los Angeles, recorded with new vocalist Kory Clarke in the summer of 2008. If playing live turns out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of band life, then it’s understandable that a live album would seem like the best way to introduce Clarke to Trouble fans across the world. “It wasn’t a big ordeal to record either, which made it more feasible for us to do,” says Franklin. “Our sound man basically recorded just the one show on the tour so it wasn’t like a big costly thing. We didn’t actually have the plan of releasing a live album but once we listened to the recording of the show, we thought that would be a good idea – to introduce people to Kory, and in the meantime give us a little time to gel with him and write stuff for a new record.” I don’t think Live in LA quite captures what it’s like to feel and see Trouble play, even with Clarke (hearing is only part of the experience, after all). But the live record stands as evidence that the band is serious about this new line-up and nowhere near packing it in.
Serious indeed. Thirty years is a long time to stick at any activity, downtime or no. Franklin and fellow Trouble guitarist Rick Wartell were around for the band’s founding in 1979, so this year – last July, in fact – could have marked a monumental anniversary. But by the sounds of it, the guys kept the celebrations very low key. “Now that Rick Wartell and myself are the only original members left, I guess we didn’t make a big deal out of it,” Franklin recalls. “If we had most everybody still in the band we may have done a big deal about it. We kind of just acknowledged it ourselves and publicly didn’t say much about it.” Did you at least have a few drinks to celebrate your stamina, I asked? “No, I don’t think so. Umm, I’m trying to remember. Well, maybe a week or two after what would basically be our anniversary we played at Wacken festival. I guess we had a few drinks there,” he replied with a chuckle.
Despite decades of touring at home and overseas, Trouble had never played Wacken before, so their arrival at what is probably metal’s most famous festival might be considered a celebration in itself. “Wacken’s 20th year anniversary and our first time,” says Franklin. “It was pretty cool for someone who’d never been there, like me. It was almost like a heavy metal Woodstock, because it’s out in the pastures in what used to be a farm, and in that respect it looks so much like Woodstock, and couple that with thousands and thousands of headbanger metalheads – makes for a contrast there. We played one festival that was bigger than that way back in the 90s but this just had a real heavy metal vibe to it. It’s just like a hardcore metalhead’s dream to go to this. It’s just huge. And the sound systems were loud and clear though, maybe the loudest sound systems I’ve ever heard.”
Festival slots introduced another new Trouble member, Marko Lira – temporary replacement turned full-time drummer. Franklin explains: “Marko was playing in Rick’s side band, Wet Animal, and actually our drummer [Jeff Olson] kind of quit suddenly on us. Well, he had given notice that he was going to leave but we had two festivals to play in Europe and then he backed out of them at the last minute, I mean, literally like two weeks before the festivals. We had to find somebody fast, and there really wasn’t time to audition people, so Marko was the first person we tried to fill in so we could not bail on those festivals. And then it ended up becoming a more permanent thing. It’s been over a year now, so he’s had time to gel.”
Things are gelling with Clarke as well, and Franklin describes Trouble’s most recent tour with Pentagram as a comfortable feeling. “Kory has been at least a year and a half with us now. Over time like that, people kind of find their comfort zone in the band and realize what the band’s all about and kind of find their niche.” The Trouble guys knew of Clarke long before he joined the band – from his time fronting Warrior Soul to more recent projects. Franklin was impressed by him “way back in 1990 when his first record with Warrior Soul came out,” but Wartell had some more recent exposure to go on: “Rick had seen Kory playing with his last band that he was in, Dirty Rig, a few years back, and when it came time that we were going to be trying to replace Eric he brought that up to me about Kory and said what do you say we give him a call, and I was like, sure. And I guess Kory thought about it for a bit and decided it wasn’t a bad idea, and he tried it out and it seemed to kind of work on some level.
“We’ve heard some people ask why did you pick Kory Clarke, because he’s not a doom metal singer or he doesn’t sound anything like Eric, but we weren’t particularly looking for someone to sound just like Eric, and we weren’t necessarily looking for someone who was just a doom metal singer either. And we were thinking that maybe we could branch out and do something – a few little twists of things that maybe we’ve never done before with it, with a kind of vocalist like this. The way I describe it is a cross between the singer from Nazareth and the first Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno – it’s a blend of those two voices, I mean, for the sound of his voice. Of course, he has his own style in the way he sings. I suppose maybe it’s not for everyone, especially people that expected somebody who sounds just like Eric because he certainly doesn’t sound like Eric. But he grew up listening to the same kind of stuff we did, and we thought maybe we could do something pretty cool, you know, doing a new record and seeing what might happen with that.”
Live in Los Angeles is a crucial record of Clarke’s participation in the band, because Wagner’s still featured on the other two recent Trouble albums: the delayed North American release of Simple Mind Condition, and Trouble Unplugged. Franklin explains: “Our label, Escapi music, went through some tough financial times and they actually closed their doors for a while, and that happened a month or two after our record [Simple Mind Condition] was released in Europe, and it never did get released in the States and it took them well over a year and a half to get back and running and another few months to get things together enough to release the record. People were waiting forever for it. I guess many of the die heard fans just paid import prices and bought it but I could understand why some people wouldn’t, ’cause it’s pretty expensive. But yeah, it’s finally out here.”
As for the Unplugged album? “We had recorded that ourselves and were just selling the Unplugged cd on our website, and the same label that released Live in LA asked if we could come up with any bonus tracks to add to the Unplugged and they’d be interested in releasing it commercially. So we dug out some old demos and stuff that hadn’t been released before but still sounded pretty cool. The original Unplugged really wasn’t a full-length album – I think it was six songs. And especially for diehard Trouble fans some never before heard unreleased stuff kind of completes it, makes it a little more appealing. I thought a couple of those tracks – like ‘Mythic Hero’ and the cover of the Yardbirds’ ‘Heartful of Soul’ – were really cool and don’t know why they didn’t make it on records even back at the time.”
The new album, Clarke’s debut with the band, won’t be out for a while yet, and Trouble won’t hit the road again until the record is available. Despite earlier reports, the record is untitled as yet – “I mean, how can you name an album when only two of the songs have lyrics written? You don’t even know what the album is saying,” Franklin says. “ We have all the music basically written – the bare skeletons of the music are pretty much done – but we need to finish getting together with Kory and working on some of this. So we’ll see.”
The band’s been understandably general about what the record will sound like, though heavy and career-spanning seem to be recurring descriptions. Franklin elaborates: “There’s some stuff like some of the first album – Psalm 9 album stuff – and then there’s some of the heavy groove stuff, like in the more recent years we’ve done, and there might be a couple songs that sound even maybe a little bit different than stuff we’ve done. I don’t mean radically different – it’s still gonna sound like Trouble. It isn’t like we’ve written a couple of songs that don’t sound anything like Trouble. Maybe it’s because with Kory singing it sounds a little different. I think it’s going to be a good mix. It’s definitely going to have some pretty heavy stuff. It’s not the more commercial side of Trouble.
“In the early days I’d probably write a lot of the music and there’d be a few songs we’d write together as a band in some cases. Then, in 90s era Trouble we would have that same aspect and then Eric might have an acoustic song and then that we would take and kind of embellish it and make it more of a song as a band, and that was some stuff we started doing later on. As for this record, this may be the most songs that Rick’s ever had of his on an album – basically Rick’s written about half and I’ve written about half of what’s gonna be the new record. So it will be different in that respect.
“We’re in kind of what you would call pre-production/rehearsals for the recording, then the actual recording. We’ll probably, as a live band, be dormant until early summer time or even mid summer time. We’ll be busy with recording, I’m sure, till the spring and then you have the couple month kind of layover before a record gets released. Company has to do all their work and stuff. We’ll be working on the record till then and probably not playing live till summer.” We return to a recurring semi-serious joke about the wintry weather, and Franklin adds, “We need to always coordinate our tours with the spring or summer or the early fall. We’ve done a midwinter tour in Europe once and it was pretty rough.”
Summer touring should see Trouble making the rounds through the US and into Canada again, but Franklin wouldn’t mind going further afield than the band has been so far. He can name a long list of places where Trouble likes to play but can also add a few more where they’d like to go. “As for just crowds, in the US, Cleveland is always a good place for us – through the years always. There’s been other cities at certain times, like maybe when we were at our peak of popularity they were good towns, but not anymore. So Cleveland’s always been there from the beginning when we were nobody to still the last time we played there. And there’s lots of great places in Europe. There’s just such a great metal community over in Europe that it’s still thriving over there. It’s kind of on life support over here. We always had great shows in Germany and Netherlands. We just had some really fun shows in Sweden. London is always great for us, that’s a highlight.”
But there are many parts of the globe Trouble’s never made it to, including Mexico, South America, and Japan, and from the list of undiscovered Trouble territory Franklin is drawn to Japan the most. “I’ve been wanting to play Japan for the longest time,” he says. “Basically, most of the bands I know have played there. We were just doing shows with Candlemass and Angel Witch in Sweden and the Angel Witch guys were telling us that they’d been to Japan. And my buddy Doug from King’s X was telling me all about when they were in Japan. I was like, man, when is Trouble going to get to go to Japan. I’ve seen things on TV from different concerts like in South America and they look huge and wild and I could see that being great. But Japan, I don’t know, maybe it’s the heritage of some of the few great live albums that were recorded there and just stories I’ve heard about – just makes me want to go there.”
And for those of us on the other side of the stage, we’ve got our own Trouble moments to look forward to – a new album, another summer tour, and hopefully many more to follow.
All photos used courtesy of www.myspace.com/troublechicago with written permission of the band