by Ryan Meehan and Blade Mancano
Prior to 1994, Johnny Kelly was living the dream touring the country as a drum tech for Type O Negative. Their most recent record at the time “Bloody Kisses” would eventually go platinum, but then percussionist Sal Abruscato was about to leave the band and Kelly saw his golden opportunity come to fruition right before his very eyes. Type O Negative went on to sell out massive concert venues worldwide, and Kelly would eventually go on to pursue other musical ventures which would make him one of the most sought after drummers in the heavy metal communities. Aside from doing a brief stint with Black Label Society at the end of their 2011 European tour, Kelly also toured with Seven Witches and two years ago replaced Vinny Appice in Rex Brown’s Kill Devil Hill. But possibly his most challenging task to date would be the decade and a half he’s toured as the chief skin-basher in Danzig, although in the middle of that tenure he would encounter an unexpected loss that would change his life forever. While working on material for the follow-up to Type O Negative ‘s 2007 critically-acclaimed album “Dead Again”, frontman Peter Steele passed away suddenly of heart failure in 2010. Shortly thereafter Johnny and the rest of the members would announce that Type O was no more, but Kelly has remained a very busy man to say the least. We are very honored and humbled to have Johnny Kelly of Danzig as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: Who was the first band you heard when you were younger which allowed you to realize that hard rock music could be both vibrant and yet extremely dark in nature at the same time? Back then, what did you think was so different about the approach they took that made them so much heavier than all of the other classic rock groups?
JK: My nursery records were from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Basically the only music played in my house was Rock & Roll. My father indoctrinated me in all things Rock. The first band that I heard that changed everything though, was KISS. Not only was the music heavy, it had just as much of a visual aspect to it to go along with the music. It was very easy to use your imagination while listening to that band. I didn’t realize it until I was older that I was quite a big fan of 70’s radio. But it was definitely KISS that opened the door for me.
RM: What was your earliest memory of playing drums so hard and so often that somebody actually came into the room and told you to knock it off? What do we need to know about some of the rooms in which you maintained the ability to keep yourself so well practiced during your formative years?
JK: I was playing drums for a few years before I even got my first kit. I used to borrow kits from friends to play shows before I had my own. My parents couldn’t afford to buy me a drum set. Even if they could afford to, my mother was never going to allow me to play it in the house! There was a rehearsal studio a block away from where I lived that I would go to and practice with my friends. Instead of hanging out and doing the things that teenagers do, I would rather be at band practice. It’s that studio where I would wind up meeting Kenny, Peter & Sal years before Type O was formed. I eventually started working there before I finished high school. My boss gave me one of the studio’s older kits when he upgraded his gear. I wound up using that same kit for 8 years. But never in my house!
RM: How did you come to really zero in on mastering the dynamic facet of drumming? What was the biggest breakthrough you had during that period when you realized there was a “key” or several “keys” to really making significant progress in the department of fluctuating intensity?
JK: I think that when I first started playing, I had advanced quite a bit in a short amount of time. I think one thing that helped in a big way was getting to play with some older players. They taught me how to play for the song instead of trying to play a drum solo for 4 1/2 minutes. They taught me about using dynamics. Over the years I’ve come to accept what I am as a player and I’ve tried to focus on being a more solid player overall. I try to focus on what’s the appropriate way to apply drums to whatever song it is I’m working on. Being a part of a great song is more satisfying than being a great drummer. I’ve always considered myself more of a student than a master. There are so many aspects that I feel need improvement with my playing.
BM: Gretsch drums are fantastically crafted pieces of musical equipment, but aren’t typically associated with the metal community to the degree which some other brands are…What do you think some reasons for that disconnect might be; and what sonic qualities are Gretsch Drums able to provide for you that make them superior to any of the other companies out there which would be thrilled to have you endorse their products?
JK: I understand why you would say that about Gretsch Drums. Before working with Gretsch, I would immediately think of players like Charlie Watts of the Stones and Phil Collins. Not too many of my peers were playing Gretsch. It’s an unfortunate assumption though. My Gretsch kits fit in perfectly with the bands that I play with. They work just as well, if not better, than other drum makers more associated with Rock / Metal music. I was sold on them from the first time I heard my buddies kit. They seem to have a little more musicality than the typical metal players kits I would see & hear. Bill Ward is now playing Gretsch. I think that’s plenty of street cred! Everyone that I work with is very impressed with the sounds we get from my Gretsch kits!
RM: Other than the fact that Peter had gotten sober, what positive vibes were you feeling between yourself and the other members of the Type O Negative when you were about to begin work on the material which would eventually become the follow-up to “Dead Again”? Did you get the sense that it was going to be much in the same vein as previous releases, or that the band was going to attempt to blaze new paths while still retaining the signature sound which made the group so successful?
JK: Things with Type O were never smooth. There was always a fire burning somewhere that needed to be put out. Peter being sober definitely made the environment a lot better on all fronts. We were looking forward to getting started on a new Type O record. But making a Type O record always took a piece of your soul with it. There was a big price to pay both mentally and physically! I think that was because we were always trying to push ourselves to the limit when it came to making whatever song we were working on to be the best it possibly could be. When I would discuss the upcoming record with Peter, he would tell me how excited he was to write songs sober. He was looking forward to really applying himself to writing a great Type O record. I don’t know how that would wind up sounding. But I’d like to think that it would’ve been a great record. We were never really too concerned about what were doing was going to be a departure or similar to what we had done in the past. We were more concerned about whatever we were doing sounded like Type O.
RM: What were some of the benefits of being in Type O Negative that you doubt you’ll be able to locate in any other band you play with from this point forward? When do you think you were finally able to mentally come to terms with the fact that Type O was done and replacing Peter was simply not an option?
JK: From the first time I heard Slow, Deep and Hard, I knew that there was never going to be anything else like Type O! I didn’t join the band until a few years later and it would blow me away to think that I had just joined my favorite band! I knew they were something special from the very beginning. I have had the privilege to play in some great bands with some iconic artists. But I have yet to find something that matches the elements Type O had. Type O was heavy, charismatic, beautiful and tragic all at once. That’s hard to come by. Once I found out that Peter had passed away, I knew the band was finished. The 3 remaining members didn’t even have a discussion about continuing. What would be the gain in trying to continue without him?
BM: Let’s talk about Danzig for a second…How did Glenn first approach you about touring with the band?
JK: When Joey C had left Danzig, I had tried getting in touch with him and at the same time I was suggested to Glenn. I forget who called who. But after talking with him, I went to LA to audition for the band. After my audition, they had decided on going with a local guy. He wanted someone who was close by and didn’t have other commitments. They did a couple of shows with him and he didn’t work out. Glenn called me after he let the other guy go.
BM: You’ve been able to play for two metal legends, and you’ve said before in interviews that working with Glenn is pretty easy – as you just have to show up and play drums. What’s the “down-time” relationship with him like? Is he easy to get along with on the road?
JK: I have a good relationship with Glenn. I live on the other side of the country in NJ. It’s not like I can just call him up and meet for dinner. We speak on the phone somewhat often. Of course we talk more when the schedule gets busier. We have fun when we’re touring together. There are a lot of laughs. He’s an east coast guy at heart. So we’re able to bust balls and laugh about it.
RM: When did you first meet Rex Brown; and what were some of the specific things you guys had in common that eventually led to the two of you working together on that project? Where does Kill Devil Hill currently stand with regards to any new music that we might see from them any time soon?
JK: I honestly can’t remember when I first met Rex. Not sure if it was when Type O first toured with Pantera or before that. I know it was sometime around 94-95. My joining KDH was weird timing. Our paths crossed while I was touring with Danzig. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. Not long after that meeting, Vinny Appice had left KDH. Rex called me to see if I was interested in coming down. I flew out to LA and played with the guys. Things clicked and I was in the band! I think the similarities are that we both have a love for Rock & Roll. We like a lot of the same music. While on different levels of success, we’ve been through a lot of similar experiences. Right now, we have a few songs demoed. Everyone has been off doing their own thing. We’ve all been starting to talk again about getting things moving. We’re going to Germany at the end of August for an event. It’ll be the first time we’ve gotten together in a long time. I’m really looking forward to it!
RM: If you had to assess your health at the moment on a scale of one to ten, what number do you think you’d come up with? Are you still nicotine free; and if so, in what ways has your drumming improved since you stopped smoking?
JK: I just recently went through a barrage of tests. Thankfully, I’m in very good health. Not smoking is always a fight. I haven’t had a cigarette in a couple of months now…
RM: You’ve had a very lengthy and accomplished career which has seen you write and perform with some of the most talented people in the metal community…Is there any corner of the entertainment industry that you have always wanted to explore, but just haven’t had the opportunity to do so simply because you are always so busy?
JK: I want to play in a Motown type band with a horn section! I have become a big fan of Motown. I love how the bass and drums work together to push a song with that kind of groove. I think that kind of songwriting has become a lost art. I would love to see it come back.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JK: There are a couple of little things here and there on the calendar for 2016. My schedule is pretty light and I’m always looking for things to do and new opportunities. Hopefully, something will come in. But I think the most important thing will be to finally get the next Seventh Void record with Kenny recorded. The songs are written and demoed. I really feel it’s a monster and it really needs to get done!
Johnny on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/johnny.kelly.351
Johnny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnnykelly1313
Danzig Official Website: http://www.danzig-verotik.com/
Danzig on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Danzig
Official Kill Devil Hill Website: https://killdevilhillmusic.com/
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Meehan and Blade