Following the recent release of their amazing 4th album “The Reality Of Miracles”, the legendary Lionheart, cult British NWOBHM super group, are once upon the world – Shan Siva talks to the iconic, but highly personable Steve Mann (McAuley Schenker Group, The Sweet, Eloy, Michael Schenker Fest)!
1. Going right back to the beginning I believe you were part of the founding line up, so how did this supergroup come together? Looking at the names involved like Jess Cox (Tygers of Pan Tang), guitarist Dennis Stratton (Iron Maiden), bassist/vocalist Rocky Newton (The Next Band, Wildfire) and drummer Frank Noon (The Next Band, Def Leppard) I’m trying to work out if, given the talent, whether it was incredibly easy – or a lifetime achievement ha ha!
Steve: I put it down to destiny – the stars aligning for us, whatever you want to call it! It was certainly a life-changing union of musicians. Basically it came about because Jess and Dennis had just parted from their bands (Tygers and Maiden respectively) and Jess hooked up with Dennis and they decided to do a project together. I had shortly before auditioned for the Tygers and lost out to John Sykes, but Jess kept my number and ran the idea past me. So I came on board. Actually during the first week of rehearsals we had a different bass player and drummer, but we soon discovered the pairing of Rocky and Frank Noon who slotted into the band perfectly. We all realised, Jess included, that the lead vocal wasn’t right for the style of music we wanted to do so we parted company fairly early on. But this is when Dennis, Rocky and I immediately felt “right” as a team, and that feeling has never left us.
2. I remember the line-up changes, you almost couldn’t keep track of them so did that prove to be a hinderance, especially given that to preserve the NWOBHM super group status there was a finite pool from which to draw talent of that pedigree?
Steve: Yes it was a hindrance, and it was quite frustrating at the time. Dennis Rocky and I knew what we wanted but we just couldn’t find the suitable singer. The right drummer also seemed to be a bit of a problem until Clive came along. Even Nicko McBrain, a brilliant drummer who is so perfect for Maiden, didn’t quite get the groove we were after. Our priority wasn’t really to keep the super group status, we just wanted people who worked within the band. To be fair, we did give it a good go with each singer, and recorded demos with most of them, but it was always obvious after a while that it was just not working. It’s not that they were bad singers – it was more it just didn’t fit with the sound we could hear in our heads. So we ended up getting the reputation of having a revolving door policy with our singers, but it wasn’t that at all – we just had some bad luck in finding the right person.
3. At a time (1980) when things were starting to rev up with bands getting heavier, faster and even louder in the NWOBHM (remembering AC/DC, Motörhead and Saxon competing to smash decibel records) Lionheart’s approach (despite its epic name) seems to have been different in being decidedly more melodic so was that the intention and if so, what was the strategy, as it seems to have flown in the face of where hard rock and metal were heading?
Steve: We didn’t pay any attention to trends. We all loved the US AOR bands like Journey, Kansas, Toto etc, and it was then natural that this approach made its way into our music. I guess we moved slowly away from British Heavy Metal during the early 1980’s, but it wasn’t a conscious decision. The Lionheart sound as always been about melodic guitar harmonies, great hooky songs, big vocal harmonies and powerful guitars and that’s all we wanted in our sound.
4. Looking back at the debut “Hot Tonight” in 1984, while acknowledging the achievement of being signed to a major label in CBS, do you think with hindsight that Lionheart might’ve taken a different approach, and if so, what course would that have been?
Steve: Yes I think in hindsight we should have stayed closer to our NWOBHM roots and kept all the great bits of that sound. Our followers originated from Iron Maiden and Tygers of Pan Tang fans, and I think we lost them as our music changed into more of a pop-rock sound. The thing that suffered most for me was the rawness of guitars bass and drums playing together. Suddenly we were in Sound City Studios in LA recording “the American way”. This meant ironing out all the raw edges. I can remember being told to drop in each guitar chord so you don’t hear movement between chords on Hot Tonight. They also used this trick of removing the high frequency Dolby decoding card when mixing which gave the music that shimmery American feel. I had wondered for years how the American’s got that sound and it was great for me because I finally found out. But I don’t think it was right for our music. With the 2 new albums I’ve really tried to make sure that some of that rawness that we owe to our NWOBHM roots is back in there and judging by the reviews the album has had so far, that’s been achieved.
5. Following the band’s breakup in 1986, you all went separate ways, so what made you move to Hannover in Germany?
Steve: Rocky was contacted by Michael Schenker soon after 185 when Lionheart took its hiatus and went to Hannover to record the demos for the material which was eventually going to morph into the McAuley Schenker Group. Michael asked Rocky if he knew anyone who could play guitar and keyboards. Rocky mentioned my name and I got the call to go to Rudolph Schenker’s home studio and play the keyboards. Well we all go on well and the rest is history. When the time came, after Perfect Timing, to record demos for a new album, I offered to engineer and produce them. Hence I brought my entire studio over to Hannover. The songs we recorded ended up becoming the Save Yourself album.
6. I believe you gained even more success there, becoming a producer and engineer (nice work on “The Reality Of Miracles” btw!) and joining The McAuley Schenker Group, The Sweet and Eloy. During this time, was Lionheart still in the back of your mind and were you in contact with the other members with a view to some sort of reunion?
Steve: After doing the Schenker demos I got a call from a couple of acquaintances in Hannover who wanted to build a new recording studio. They had the premises, and I had the equipment, so we put it all together and that ended up becoming Frida Park Studio. My two partners went off on tour and left the studio for me to run on my own with the result that I produced and engineered literally dozens of albums there throughout the 1990’s. This included a few projects for The Sweet whom I had shortly before joined as keyboards and second guitar player. For The Sweet I recorded and mixed the “A” album, mixed the soundtrack for the live show at “The Capitol” in Hannover, and recorded and mixed “Glitz Blitz and Hitz”. This last album was a great challenge for me as I had to reproduce as closely as possible the old 70’s “sound” on 90’s equipment! I joined Eloy too for a couple of tours and played on a couple of albums, but my main job during this time was keeping Frida Park going so I spent most of my time working with bands there. Regarding Lionheart – we never really “broke up” as such – it was more “taking a break”. The band had so much unrealised potential that I think none of us ever wanted to let it go and we always had the thought at the backs of our minds how great it would be to pick it up again. We kept in touch with each other and often mentioned the possibility of picking it all up again.
7. This finally happened in 2016 at the Rockingham Festival so what was the moment you all knew that Lionheart was going to be given a second lease of life?
Steve: Rockingham was always intended to be a one-off show. We all learnt the songs at home then booked rehearsals for the 2 days before the gig. We hadn’t played together for 31 years, and the first song we rehearsed was “Wait For The Night” from Hot Tonight. When we hit the first chorus – well that’s when I realised it was not going to end at that point – it was suddenly the old magic happening all over again. At the end of the song I looked at the other guys and immediatly realised they felt exactly the same! This was all reinforced after we had played the festival and we had literally dozens of messages saying we had to carry on. So we did.
8. Compared to when you first started, how would you say the hard rock / metal scene has changed and did that work out better for the band this time around or was it not without challenges of its own?
Steve: In my opinion the whole rock and metal scene has changed hugely for the better. I love the virtuosity of players these days. They really study their instruments and music theory and have set the bar very high. Some of the drummers I watch live are just incredible. Singers too are pitch perfect live, probably due in part to the use of in-ears these days. The boozing and drug-taking is no longer a part of the scene and egos, at least in European bands, are kept well in check. The result, for me, is that there is a seemingly limitless amount of great metal to enjoy these days, with the trail being blazed by the likes of Nightwish, Arjen Lucassen and Battle Beast. The business has changed a lot too now. Bands no longer need to find that all-elusive record deal in order to release and promote albums. The ability to “home record” means that bands no longer need a recording advance. Digital and physical product distribution as well as promotion on social media is now in the band’s own hands. For Lionheart this has been quite a revelation as our records now sound like we want them to sound rather than how the manager or record company wants them to sound. Our current record company, Metalville, totally get this too which makes for a really productive and positive working relationship. There is a downside to this new business model however and that is lack of income for bands. No one seems to want to buy CDs anymore which is crippling the industry. Downloads have plummeted in favour of streaming, but at least people are beginning to pay for music again via the streaming services, rather than illegally downloading free music. The bottom line is that music has lost its value and become cheap. Streaming services need to find a way to start charging users more and persuade people to move away from the free version of their services, then perhaps we might start to have an industry again.
9. Following the release of “Second Nature” in 2017, the band seems to have been on a roll, so is Lionheart now very much a priority for the members once again, or fitted in with all your other projects?
Steve: We all love the other projects we are involved in, but artistically Lionheart is the main vehicle for all of us. For me personally I find working with Michael Schenker to be very inspirational as he really is a genius guitar player – one of the top players in the world for me. But Lionheart gives me the chance to fully express my own creativity. As long as I can keep multiple projects going I will because I also love the variation.
10. Bringing it to the here and now, is there anything in the title “The Reality Of Miracles”?
Steve: The title was a suggestion from Lee after he came up with the chorus for the title track a long while back. As with a lot of Lionheart events, it slowly started to assume real meaning for us, almost as if the title took on a life of its own. World events and situations, in particular Coronavirus, made us realise how fragile the human race is. We felt very strongly that our collective power, or collective consciousness as Carl Jung would call it, would overcome anything if we wanted it to. This was the point where were felt that miracles can, and do, happen, so for the times we are going through “The Reality Of Miracles” seemed to us to be a very apt title.
11. Can you give us an idea about the composing, is it done by individual members and then finessed together or is it more of a collaborative approach from the outset?
Steve: It’s both. Ideas always start off as a song from an individual which then get sent to me. We all write, so we end up with plenty of different styles to pick from. The ones I think have potential I then record as a good quality guide track which I then send to Lee. We then have a to-and-fro session where Lee adds melody and lyrics, and I start to arrange and knock the song into shape. It’s then played to the other guys for feedback and sometimes even at this late stage in the writing process we will throw a song out if it’s not cutting it. As producer, I have always said I want no filler tracks on the album – every song should be a killer. I think we have achieved that on “The Reality Of Miracles”.
12. There are plenty of classic hard rock and NWOBHM traits across the 13 songs so was that intentional by the band to connect to its past or more from your musical heritage naturally flowing through your playing?
Steve: We actually don’t think too much about styles, we just play what sounds and feels good to us. As the band was involved in the formative years of the NWOBHM, it’s quite natural that there are elements of this in our sound, and we all love classic hard rock so there will be that in there too. I think much more important for us is that we are trying to do something a little bit unique. So yes, we are influenced by styles, but mainly we try and stay true to the Lionheart sound which developed very quickly in those early Marquee days and which is very much based around the combination of big vocal harmony choruses, dual guitar harmonies and great, hooky songs.
13. I have to ask, you’ve worked with some famous names in your time, so what would you say is the single most defining moment of your career?
Steve: That’s a great question and one that is very hard to answer. One moment would definitely be walking out on stage with Michael Schenker Fest at the International Forum Hall A in Tokyo in 2016. That was pure magic. But the most defining event for me, rather than moment, would be when a song I wrote with Robin McAuley called “Anytime” reached number 2 in the US Billboard Top 100.
14. As a final question, those of us familiar with the band know what to expect, but what would you say to someone new about what Lionheart brings?
Steve: I would say Lionheart brings its own brand of melodic heavy rock which pivots around great songs, big vocal harmonies and melodic guitars. Our sound incorporates elements of metal, AOR and classic rock without exclusively falling into any single one of those categories. Our music will appeal to fans of all three types of music.