Jurgen Zabel Interview (Almost Famous Band)
(By Philippe Archambeau & Yves Philippot (June 2012)
Hello Jürgen, many thanks for answering those questions for Road to Jacksonville, webzine dedicated to Southern Rock.
I've made an Southern Rock Radio programme during 10 years that began with the intro of a tune called Road to Jacksonville, extracted from an album of a band called Street Survivors, so it's of course a bit special for me to see you again today in Almost Famous. First, I'd just like to come back to STREET SURVIVORS.
STREET SURVIVORS, it was in 1997, can you just tell us how you composed your tunes and what were the band's goals ? Were you all Lynyrd Skynyrd's fans ?
Not everyone in the band was, but during that time I was big fan as well. Harry was, too, just as the first drummer of the band, Frank Semmler. He wrote the lyrics for Road to Jacksonville and some other real good songs for the band. Together with him I went to the States in 1992 where we met the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band on their tour for some days. We could ride on their tour bus for a while and they left us the hotel rooms for free when they had to go to another city. I got the one from Billy Powell. The second background singer on that tour, Debbie Bailey, got in contact with Frank and she joined us for our first show in Germany in December 1992. That was the first highlight in the band`s history.
Can you tell us how you wrote Road to Jacksonville, and what Lynyrd Skynyrd represents for you ?
Someday Frank came over with the lyrics and I added the music, but the first version had nothing to do with the track on CD, it was completely different. In that time Lynyrd Skynyrd was my favorite band. I stayed in contact with them until 1997 and we met whenever they were on tour in Germany.
I had the opportunity to let a childhood friend of Johnny Van Zant hear this tune, and he immediatly adopted it, as if this tune was written by an American. Do you think that this kind of reaction can be a pledge of quality?
I don´t know. But you cannot write such a song if you are just playing an instrument, no matter how good or bad you are. You have to live the music, which I did in those days.
I won't come back on the whole record, can you tell us simply how you recorded it ?
The album took us 14 days recording and mixing it. It was not something special, but we found a nice studio (Grenzlandstudio in Bochholt, maybe they still have some original Cds)(most of the German towns named here are in Rhénanie, at the Dutch frontier, not very far from Düsseldorf, N d R.) and the sound engineer, Peter, was a good one. The recording began as usual with drums & bass and we added each instrument by itself to the tracks.
For me, it's the best Southern Rock record released in Europe, even if W.I.N.D. Also made something as strong but in a different style, did you have the feeling that you were making and writing such a record as you recorded it ?
I had a lot of trust in the songs. The feedback from our audience gave us the proof in every show. In 97/98 the band reached its peak and was on a very high level. Our problem was to find a good studio. In my eyes this album has 10 songs which could be a top title for 10 further CDs.
An essential question for me, do you play Street Survivors titles on stage with Almost Famous?
Yes we do, but none of the album. I wrote “Brothers of the Road” in 97 and “Ballad of Johnny” (dedicated to Johnny van Zant) in 98. I wrote these songs after the recordings for “Southern Rock will never die”. Today we are thinking about adding some songs from that album in our shows, maybe. And we do play a few covers like “Simple Man”, “Tush”, “All over now” and some others.
Have you some news of the other members of the band (except Wolfgang who plays in Almost Famous) ?
Wolfgang and Günther, the keyborder, left the end of 1998 just before we went on tour with Wishbone Ash for 3 weeks. They could not get the days off from their jobs at that time and sadly they decided to leave the band. We were all amateurs who had regular work-life except the drummer, Guido and guitarist Harry.
By that time the best days of the band were over. The following musicians could never fully replace Günther and Wolfgang.
Also, we meanwhile had disastrous management, which influenced the band more and more into the wrong direction. I founded that band in 1992 and left them in 2000 and we did not break up as friends. I sometimes meet Günther in these days, we still are friends. He is always telling me to do some shows with the original band. He even got me to think about it, but not for a long time. Wolfgang as well was not a friend of this idea, but they are still in contact and longtime friends. Sometimes when we meet we have some beers and fun and then we remember the good times of the band.
I even write to you at an adress in an island in the North of Germany, where I was told you were living, but the letter sadly came back. Wher were you since 1997 ? And have you played music?
How the hell did you know that? I always wanted to live on that island and in 2000 was the right time to go. I had a good job there, new friends and a little band, while I was living on the island Borkum.
I'd like to come back to your career, can you tell us where you come from, and how you began the music ?
I was born in Alpen, a small village in the west of Germany. I went to school in Rheinberg, a small and nice town (by the way, Claudia Schiffer is born there). During this time I made a lot of good friends there, some of them for a lifetime.
I really got into music in 1974. I have two uncles and one aunt who are about 10 years older than me and they always listened to music. One day, when I stayed in their house, I heard the Beatles version of “Rock´n`Roll Music” and that was the beginning of it all. I tried to learn the guitar, got better and better in small steps and the last kick was Rory Gallagher when I first saw him in Rockpalast TV in Germany in August 1977. He stole my heart and I was lost forever.
What are the bands that inspired you the most ?
In the beginning I listened a lot to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Wishbone Ash and The Who. In 1981 I discovered Southern Rock. My first album was “Together Forever” from the MTB (Marshall Tucker Band, N d R.). In these days I bought any available album of any Southern Rock band. The most influence on me surely had Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allmann Brothers. Today it is Gov´t Mule.
Have you a favourite kind of guitar, like Gary Rossington with the Les Paul, or do you try to find the sound of instrument that fit the most to the tune ?
My main guitar for a long time was a 76 Gibson Firebird which I gave to a custom guitar builder to improve her a little bit. Today I pick a guitar which fits best to a song, especially in studio. Beside the Firebird I use a Stratocaster and a Telecaster, which I bought in the States during the Lynyrd Skynrd tour. On stage it is a mood what I prefer.
Where does your nickname Zappo come from ?
I received it in 1973 when I went to school in Rheinberg. One of the boys in my class once called me Zappo. I think it refers back to my family name Zabel. I am sure this nickname will follow me into my grave, but it is ok.
Can you tell us why you called this new band Almost Famous ? Is it a reference to the title of the film ?
Yes, you got it, but is also a little reference to the Street Survivors as it describes a little the circumstances with that band.
How and when did Almost Famous begin its career ? Can you present the members of the band to the readers of our webzine?
We first met in 2002, without a keyboarder, without a singer and without a plan.
Originals members were Lorry, Heinz and I. We started jamming and played some instrumental stuff with changing lineup. Later Wolfgang joined to play bass and in summer 2007 Ernie gave Almost Famous its voice. Finally in December 2007 Lucky completed our current lineup as keyboarder.
The members of the band today are:
Ernst Koch (vocals) – Ernie is making music for decades already. He started in the 60ies with a cover band and has played with bands that were locally very well-known like “Stampede”, “Sledge” and some others. I have seen a number of their live shows in those years. Ernie has turned 60 in 2011 and we performed live on his birthday party. Ernie used to run a bar/club – the “Alte Schmiede” (“the old forge”, N d R.) in Kamp-Lintfort, but is now about to retire.
Heinz Maas (guitar) – Heinz is the oldie in our band – he has turned 60 in 2011 as well. Maasi and I are musical companions for decades as well. Before Street Survivors was founded Heinz and I played in a band called “Rebel Flagg”. Heinz is an original member of Almost Famous.
Wolfgang Gottstein (bass) – As you know, Wolfgang was a member of the Street Survivors as well. He also played in a few other bands in the past. In his “second life” Wolfgang is a teacher.
Thomas Lorenz (drums) – Lorry is also a founder of Almost Famous and has played in a number of other bands as well. Thomas also drums for the Roughness Blues Band, who performed live with us in June, when we officially released Promised Land. Lorry is an educator working with teenagers a lot.
Michael Laakmann (keyboards) – Lucky is the youngest member both in terms of age (43) and membership in the band. He composed the song “In Flow”. Lucky has designed our homepage (almost-famous.eu) as well as the cover for Promised Land and has created the videos that you can watch on YouTube. During school and studies Lucky played with a band called “Simoriah” together with Heiko Dürr, who runs the Redroom Rec Studios, where we recorded Promised Land. Lucky is a sales team manager in the telco- and IT industry.
How did you record Promised Land, and what is for you the meaning of this title already used by Chuck Berry?
First of all I think it is important to say that we produced the whole record ourselves – meaning song-writing, arrangements, cover design, as well as cd-burning. There was no record label, publisher or any other company involved. This is also why this first edition of Promised Land is not available in any store and the format is a CD-R.
We recorded Promised Land at Redroom Recording Studios in Rheinberg, Germany and it what was done very similar to the Street Survivors album – Drums, Bass, Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals and so on. Heiko Dürr, who owns and runs the studio, is a longtime friend of Lucky and mine. Heiko has recorded and mixed all the songs. He did a fantastic job and without him this record would not have been half as good as it is. Overall it took us more than 200 hours to record Promised Land between mid of April and early June 2011. The songs where mastered by Ulf Hartwig.
At this point we also have to say a big thank you to Jenny & Jessie Koch (Ernie’s daughters) who did the backing vocals for the album without any rehearsal. Their voices added a new color to lots of the songs and had an impact on the album as well.
The meaning of Promised Land is a flashback into my younger years when everything was easy. Sometimes I am dreaming of my youth.
Flames of Yesterday remains us Street Survivors, what is your method of composing ?
I began to write this song in very last period with the Street Survivors, but it never reached any stage at that time. My method of writing varies a lot. Most of the things I am writing about really happened and some are fictional.
I have the best ideas when I have time to think. When I discover a hookline for a chorus I sing it on and on to make sure that I don`t forget it until I have the chance to write it down. That is how the song Promised Land was composed as well.
Can you explain us a little more about what Back on The Road tells ?
I think that was the first song which I wrote for Almost Famous. After the Street Survivors time I did not really expect that I would have another band with regular rehearsals and gigs. I wrote this song in January 2003 on the Canary Islands and it was a turning point and the first little step to get Almost Famous in the saddle. As well it is my personal farewell to my old band.
The ballad Ballad of Johnny, that finishes the album, is a little something like your Edge of Sundown, did you have this feeling?
I love this song. I wrote it for Johnny van Zant whom I met several times in the 90s. This is something which was real and full of sparkling moments, fun and good vibrations. I love any word and single note in this song. Anytime we play it everybody is thrilled.
The album has some colours that remain the Danny Joe Brown Band, did you have the opportunity to meet this great singer who passed to soon?
Fortunately I did!!! I met him in the early 90s and we spent a night after a Molly Hatchet show in Cologne which I will never forget. Bobby Ingram was also around. Danny Joe told me that they plan a new album which later appeared as Devils Canyon. When they returned to Germany in 98 I met them on tour and I could manage it with Bobby that we could open for 4 shows on their tour. Bobby and me became friends and he gave me the address of their record company in the states, but our «wonderful» management was not able to do anything.
What was you singer Ernst Koch's career before Almost Famous ?
He began in the 60s with a cover band. I first met him in 1983 when he was the singer of a southern rock band called Stampede. After this he was in a hard rock Band called Splendid, in a Deep Purple cover band, and a soul band. When they split off he did nothing for a while, until I ask him to join Almost Famous.
For the guitar parts inside Almost Famous, do you work in a different way with your new accomplice (Heinz Maas) than with the one of Street Survivors (Harry Nies) or are the roles and the way of working very well delimited ?
It is completely different. Harry and I arranged a lot things together, songwriting and specially the twin guitars which were cornerstone in this band. Today I am doing the arrangements all by myself. Heinz just plays his solos and all slide parts and I tell him what to play when we do two voices solos.
Can you tell us how we can find your record ?
As stated above, Promised Land is not available in any record shop. We are thinking about publishing it via one or the other download portal, but in Germany there is an organisation called GEMA looking after copyrights and publishing of music, which makes it complicated and expensive to do an official release – especially when you are doing it all yourself and in your free time parallel to a “regular work life”. But anyone who is interested in getting a cd can contact us via our homepage (almost-famous.eu) or by e-mail (email@example.com). Until now Lucky has taken care of all those requests and has made sure that rockers in Germany, France and Italy have received their copy of Promised Land.
It seems that the record was released in CD-R, does a CD version exist ? In limited edition ?
As I said already, we did all the work ourselves, which included burning a few hundred CD-R’s. There is no cd version yet, because of some commercial, regulatory and legal issues that the GEMA is taking care of. But as the first edition is almost sold out, we actually are reviewing on when and how we are publishing a second edition. This might be available on cd as well as via download.
Will you tour with the band? Open for Molly Hatchet or other bands in Germany ?
There is no tour planned, yet. And right now we are honestly speaking quite far away from any tour-life. As with the album itself, any tour would be managed and organized by ourselves as well. It is quite difficult to get six working men (most of them with family & kids) plus support staff scheduled accordingly. Actually we are doing some shows locally, depending on the offers we get.
I'd like to know more about your musical opinions, what are your favourite bands in Southern rock at the moment? Do you know Blackberry Smoke ?
My favourite bands are Gov`t Mule and still the Allman Brothers. I could listen to them anytime. I heard about Blackberry Smoke but I don`t know any song.
Did you have the opportunity to meet Georg Bayer before his passing and to play with Lizard ?
I met Georg once in Hamburg on one of their shows. We stayed in contact for a while. He was a nice guy and I was very, very sad when I heard that he has passed away.
Lizard is still a reference, but I have the feeling that there is less bands in Germany, is the Southern Rock still popular and played ?
Lizard is a great band and I love what they are doing, but I don`t think that southern rock in Germany is very popular. I cannot imagine that for example Lynyrd Skynyrd will get more than 3.000 fans to a show today.
I saw Flatman live in France, in 2011, but the most difficult is here to find dates. How does it work for Almost Famous in Germany to find dates and do you have the intention to tour in France ?
We are not planning to go on tour, actually. But we definitely would like to come over to France for a show or two.
Do you know NATCHEZ, CALIBRE 12, or other Southern Rock bands in France ? Natchez had already the opportunity to play in Germany with Lizard.
I received in the 90s a CD and a VHS tape in secam of Calibre 12 with a letter of one of these guys. I still have it and was very pleased and surprised that someone from France wrote to me. If you meet them, send them my best wishes. (For sure, we will send ! John, you can't miss that ! N d R.)
A question that I have to set: today Street Survivors is completly unavailable in cd, will we have a reissue ?
Definitely not. I saw an offer of the cd in the internet for 25 €. I still have some very few at home and sell them for 20 € each. If anybody is interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A traditionnal question for Road to Jacksonville to finish our interviews: if you have to stay alone on a desert island, taking only 5 albums with you, what would they be ?
Only 5? This is hard, but here are my favorites:
Irish Tour – Rory Gallagher
Fillmore East – Allman Brothers
Live and Dangerous – Thin Lizzy
High and Mighty – Gov`t Mule
Waiting for Columbus – Little Feat
Thanks Jürgen, for giving this interview, I hope to see you in France very soon.