» Don Van Stavern - Riot V
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Interview conducted August 16 2019
Interview published August 22 2019

"Nowadays you're on a little computer and cut and paste."

Riot V just had a new live video out and as the band came to visit Sabaton Open Air in central Sweden, Metal Covenant was able to talk for a while with bass player, and the main man of this version of the band, Don Van Stavern.

Tobbe: You guys recently put out a live video called Live In Japan 2018 and tell me a little bit about it.

Don: Well, when we originally made the record deals we were on Nuclear Blast, and then we were on Ward Records in Japan and they wanted to do something special, so part of the deal was a live DVD and they wanted the regular Riot V set and then they wanted a special Thundersteel [1988] set; the whole album. You know, I played with the original Riot on that and I wrote almost every song on that, so I said "Okay.".

So we put it together. They had, like, 20 cameras and the whole nine yards and it was really beautifully set up. So they did that; that was part of the deal. So they shot it and all that, and we did all the edits and stuff, and then when it came to license and distributor we didn't go with Nuclear Blast, but we went with the great AFM. Riot, in our 30-year career we've had many bootlegs. You know, videos, CDs, but this was actually an official one. So this was licensed, and officially shot, edited, and the whole nine yards, so we're very proud of it. It's great; I'm very happy with it.

Tobbe: And what does a live video mean to a heavy metal band in 2019, really? You know, with YouTube and stuff.

Don: You know, back in the day live records were really cool. When I was growing up, as a kid, Kiss - Alive! [1975] and Thin Lizzy - Live And Dangerous [1978] came out. And of course my all-time favorite record, and the reason why I got into music, Made In Japan by Deep Purple [1972]. Because my father was into music and he loved Deep Purple; Ritchie Blackmore. So he turned me onto it. You know, Machine Head [1972] and Made In Japan and all the records on. Frampton Comes Alive! [1976].

So back then it was really cool. Nowadays: Like you said, it's a little bit different now. I think one of the problems is: basically you can get your phone and see a live video from someone. You know, so it's already available. Back then it was interesting. So you get the record, and see the live, and listen to it, like you were there. Now you can be there. You just pick up your phone. It's great, you know, but I'm an old schooler and I actually like to get the physical and take the wrapper up and open it and look at the pictures. You know, you get that feel for it. So I think it's a little bit different now, but I think it's still cool that you come out with an actual packaging.

You know, a marketing plan with something like that. They don't sell as much as back then too. It's like "Should I buy it or can I just look at it online?". Social media is probably the best thing to happen to music and probably the worst thing to happen to music.

Tobbe: It took almost 17 months to get this video out. What's been taking so long, really?

Don: Those damn Ward… No. [Laughs] I think they were behind, we had to do some editing, and they had to get the album cover in place and stuff. A lot of approval has to come. Their video department will send me a rough, "What do you think?" and I'll be like "Well, there it was cool, but this scene's better. More crowd.". So there's a lot of editing going into these things.

There are a lot of bands that replace and doctor up their thing. There's some bands that's notorious for playing live in a studio and adding a crowd. Riot's not like that. We're lucky, because we really do have a good band and Todd Michael Hall live sounds like he does on the record, so he didn't change one thing. So what you hear on this is Todd Michael Hall naturally. We like to let it slide, you know. We heard, like, "Hey! You hit a wrong note.". - "Leave it. It makes it live.". You know, it's not perfect and that's what people want. Anyway, it took a lot of editing. That's why it took so long.

And then we were having a little discrepancy about the album cover. You know, we have our seal creature. You know, with the seal head, Johnny, and they had their artist do this more abominable snowman looking guy. We were like "That doesn't look like our guy.". So basically a lot of editing, with not only the production of it, but the covering, whatnot, and picking pictures. So it was, like, behind schedule, so it came out a little bit later. But it's pretty cool, I dig it, I think it's nice.

Tobbe: Yes, I think the recordings give me a really good live feel since it's not so over-corrected.

Don: I take pride in that, because on past… I don't wanna, like, slag anybody. When we first got together with the Thundersteel lineup we did Immortal Soul [2011] and Japan wanted extra bonus tracks. So we had to take the board mixes and Tony Moore, you know, he's an older man now, so there was a little bit of fixing on that here and there. But this one: we sat back and we listened to it and we were kind of like "Wow! We play that good?".

And then of course, the main thing is, like I said with notes, when they're off a little bit we'll let them slide. The singer is usually the bad part. But when we heard Todd… We were confident in him from the beginning, because we have done our own tapes and shot videos. He delivers, not only on the records, but live. He takes pride on sounding as good as he can.

Tobbe: There's no bonus content on this video and how come you didn't include some, like, backstage clips or some kind of documentary stuff?

Don: Well, we can't really include a lot of backstage stuff, because we all have girlfriends and we'll get in trouble. [Laughs] But I think they just stuck to the live show, you know what I mean? And I thought "Maybe they should have us backstage, like, warming up.", 'cause we have a ritual. You know, Riot is known as a tequila band and I always have the tequilas, because we have the song Swords And Tequila [From the album Fire Down Under, 1981].

And Mark [Reale], you know, the original, and one of my best friends… Since he passed away we always have a ritual, like "Cheers to Mark.", I swig it, and we all do a little thing, you know. And even when I walk out on stage I always do the one for the homies. Whatever land I'm in I always go out there, cheers the crowd, and dump a little bit on their ground, just to say "This is from Mark and us.". So that kind of stuff would have been cool. Mainly it was just on stage and a little bit of us walking, but yeah, I agree, maybe they should've had some backstage antics.

Tobbe: Regarding playing the whole Thundersteel album. That album was contemporaneous with Helloween's Keeper Of The Seven Keys Part II. So what made you not go bigger at that point?

Don: Well, that is a big question. A lot of people say "Why isn't Riot as big as you should be?". You know, I'm not trying to brag or anything, but it's a different market and sometimes it's kind of strange. But, you know, America, they're very picky and they've changed with the times. Back then it was a little bit better, but now… That's why we find ourselves here a lot, in Europe, or Japan. And some of the people in America go "Why did you abandon us?", you know. - "We didn't abandon you, but over there the scene is so much… It's still happening.".

You know, all the festivals are here. We play festivals, we have better sales here, and the money is even better, in the business aspect of it too. And all of that stuff counts, you know. So, you know, it got big in America, but I think Helloween broke into the American scene with that album, and it's good, but over here they got super huge. Like to this day, bands like HammerFall too… They play here in front over thousands of people and headline a crowd, but in Texas, in my hometown [San Antonio], they play in a little club for 200 people.

Yeah, it's kind of strange, but it has something to do with that, and I think at the time we came out with Thundersteel… It was 1988, we were on CBS Associated. At the time Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson were on that. People were like "Big money! Big money! Who is this? Riot? Okay…", you know what I mean? So I don't think we got the shove that we should have. But I think the record was so good and delivered that they had to recognize it a little bit. And it was a transitional period for Riot of course, because on the 5 records before me it was rock 'n' roll, Southern rock rock 'n' roll, with Rhett Forrester and Guy [Speranza].

You know, I was in the Texas Slayer [S.A. Slayer] at the time and I was into playing riffs and writing heavy metal, so. Me and Mark made a couple, you know, little side bands, and that's when he called me to join the band. He said "We're getting back together, but we want you to play bass now.". So I joined, and that's when I started changing my sound. We combined it with their hard rock, like Fire Down Under, and then I started writing riffs, and it came to be Thundersteel. All I had was about 4 songs that me and Mark were playing in this band Narita, a side project, and we brought them to the camp. And that's when Riot's sound changed and we became a power metal band.

And we were kind of in the forefront, because at the time there wasn't a lot of bands doing this, you know what I mean? It hit more over here, so I think they supported it. In American CBS, they were okay with it, but I think if we might have been European and lived here, Thundersteel would have been huge and we would have been headlining a festival with the Pumpkins guys, so. Shit happens anyway.

Tobbe: Do you wish that you could go back and change some of the decisions made back in the day?

Don: Yeah. You know, we had a lot of lineup changes and different style changes and stuff. Mark Reale, the guitar player, it was his band and his vision. That's how I keep the band going, 'cause I manage the band too. I think about what he taught me. He taught me a lot; he was my mentor. He showed me how to write, like rather than just a fast riff; "Make a melody. Make a good song.". He taught me that and he taught me some of the business and stuff like that. I try to, like, think of what Mark would do.

And Mark was big on: "We have to do this!". - "I can't do it.". - "Well, I'll get someone else.". You know, like when Mike DiMeo at one time was supposed to go on a tour and goes "I can't go.". He was doing some little band. And Mark goes "Over us?". So they got that Mike Tirelli guy. So Mark was really like that. He wanted the band to play, and deliver, and go. You know, we now have the fifth singer. That's why it's Riot V.

And I came up with the name. They go "Why Riot V? What is the V?" and I said "It's the Roman numeral 5. For the fifth chapter of the band.". Guy, Rhett, Tony Moore, Mike DiMeo and now Todd Michael Hall. The sound is reminiscent of power metal from me and Mike's [Flyntz, guitar] kind of Rainbow/ Ritchie Blackmore… That's what the combination of V is. So, a lot of member changes, musical changes, but we're trying to convey this image right now.

There'll be a lot of people saying like "It's not the original Riot." and I'm like "You know what? We're not conveying that. We're conveying Thundersteel on. We're 1988 and forward.". Like all the songs we played today, I wrote every one of them. But the fans go, like "We wanna hear the old Riot.", so we play Swords And Tequila, or Warrior [From the album Rock City, 1977] and stuff like that. But stuff from Thundersteel, I wrote it, so we can move forward.

Tobbe: The two latest records [Unleash The Fire, 2014 and Armor Of Light, 2018] sound like Thundersteel, only, like, 25 or 30 younger than that record, and is that the music you will come out with from now on, or will you change a little bit, or where do you see the future?

Don: You know, I have a certain style of writing, and it's like Thundersteel. And one thing that Mark gave me is that he let me do what I wanted to do and write a lot of songs. This is Mark Reale's band. On Thundersteel I wrote 8 songs; almost every song. On [The] Privilege Of Power [1990] I wrote, like, almost all of them. And then now we did Unleash The Fire and I wrote, you know, 8 of the 10 songs. On the new record, Armor Of Light, same thing, 8 of the 10 songs. [Both those records contain 12 songs each, which Don actually seems to know as shown further down this text. But point taken…]

I've just been a chief songwriter, and I kind of write, not for myself, but I write from what the people will like and what they expect from Riot. They always expect powerful music, but with a good melody that they can sing along with. You know, besides the Little Nick [Nick Lee, guitar] we got… He's only 29, about to turn 30, but other than that, I'm 56 and Mike's 54, so we're getting older, so we're trying to keep it going and keep it up and stuff like that.

But I think that's a formula that people like, so I think future recordings will be similar to what we're doing at this point. On the next record we're talking about that we might be a little more experimental, like early Riot, because when we did our first record for Nuclear Blast just recently [Armor Of Light], we wanted to keep it pretty heavy and aggressive because the label was known for that. It's a big heavy metal label. We didn't have old school songs like Maryanne [From the album The Privilege Of Power] and Bloodstreets [From the album Thundersteel].

You know, it was real heavy, so we have said "You know what? Next record: Let's go back to our roots.". So we're gonna have 2 or 3, you know, get up and go, but we wanna have some of the, you know, Metal Soldiers [From the album The Privilege Of Power] grooves and stuff like that. Like Accept or something. So we're gonna have a combination of that and hopefully the people will enjoy the whole spectrum.

Tobbe: 4 years between the last two albums, so will we have to wait until 2022 before you have another album out?

Don: Right now we're in pre-production. We already have, like, 15 songs, plus we have leftovers from Armor Of Light. 'Cause for Armor Of Light we had 20 songs and we picked the best 12, so we have, like, 8 songs. So we bring them and then we add songs to it. We wanna do a well-rounded album. So it's gonna come out in 2020. It'll come out next year.

Tobbe: What's still so fascinating about making records?

Don: Well, you know, it's a different animal now, because record sales are different and recording is different. Back in the day, when we did Thundersteel, we would go into a big studio in New York City. Big studio, a producer, a big tape spinning, you know. Nowadays you're on a little computer and cut and paste. You go "This one scene is great. We'll take that and we'll put it here and we'll put it here.". You know, it's not like "Take 2. Take 3.".

I still love recording. It's just a different animal now. Back then we had to be in one room together. Now, Armor Of Light was recorded all in our own homes. We all have home studios. The three guys that live in New York recorded their parts, I do mine, and Frankie [Gilchriest] does his drums in New Jersey. And what we do is we send our files in a big folder to the producer in California.

But the finished product is cool, so. It's something you have to do. You have to get a product out. But the recording of albums is different now, but it's still satisfactory and I love doing it. Less money too, because in the big studio you had to hire people. CBS was giving us, you know, $250000-300000 forward for a record, right. Now, you know, we're getting, like, not even barely $50000, because of "Well, it's right there!".

You know, you're not, like, flying and stuff, so the money part is a little bit different. But I still think that we are putting out quality music. We're not trying to do something else. We're still doing stuff that people will recognize and like.

See also: review of the DVD Live In Japan 2018

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