TONY HARNELL – Rock ‘N’ Roll has never ceased to evolve, neither has Tony Harnell, the lead vocalist for his very own and hand picked band – Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train. Tony’s Rock ‘N’ Roll history skyrocketed back in 1984, while being the vocalist for Norway’s Hard Rock/Heavy Metal band TNT. Being the lead vocalist for TNT and signed to a major label is what Rock ‘N’ Roll dreams are about. With nine studio albums and two live albums while with TNT, (from 1984 to 2006), some could argue that Tony Harnell had a stake in an impressive chunk of Hard Rock & Heavy Metal history.
In 1998, Tony Harnell formed the Hard Rock band – Westworld. A band that many critics and untold fans over the years consider as yet another shining Rock ‘N’ Roll star on Tony’s music resume. Short lived, Westworld still released three studio albums and one live release between 1999 and 2002. Tony Harnell formed Starbreaker, a Hard Rock/Heavy Metal band that was a side project for him while his career with TNT was coming to a close. Signed to Frontiers records, Starbreaker released two critically acclaimed studio albums, their self-titled debut in 2005 and “Love’s Dying Wish” in 2008.
Now that the Tony Harnell Hard Rock and Heavy Metal history has come to a close, a new chapter in his life has begun, as he so expresses in the following interview. “Round Trip”, released on July 2, in Europe and July 27, 2010, in the U.S., on Frontiers Records, is the debut album from Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train. A studio album which contains 14 songs that span the career of Tony Harnell, while with TNT and Starbreaker included. These are songs that Tony Harnell can justifiably call his own, stripped down and beaming with an Acoustic Rock revival that becomes more of an audio delicacy, the more times you listen.
Reflecting on the past, while not living in it and staying focused on the now… is exactly how Tony Harnell comes across. There are music influences that have shaped this vocalist into what he once was and is at this moment in time. Evolving within his own world of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tony has cultivated The Mercury Train to roll in and create the sound that he wants representing him and his songs in 2010. Here is what Tony had to say:
HRH: Where did the name Mercury Train come from?
Tony: I was going through cool band names and I also had this list of weird names. Derek Mead, the designer of our album cover, did a really fantastic job on that. The orange shades on the cover he created I love, the digipak really shows how great it looks. He was coming up with a bunch of logo’s and band names, he is really talented at that. Derek kept sending me ideas, he came up with that one. I saw this Mercury Train name and said that’s it! That’s the one! The Mercury Train was a high speed train project dating back to the 1930’s. It was supposed to run between Long Island and Upstate New York, only it never moved forward. Derek really came up with a great band name.
HRH: What was the initial inspiration to revisit and rework songs from your past?
Tony: The funny thing about it, it was a very natural and organic process. These guys in the band are friends and it made it easy. I wanted strip down songs from my past to play in Manhattan clubs and I wondered would these songs sound strong or silly? Would these songs translate well? We were seen through shows by Frontiers Records. Frontiers approached me and asked if I would be interested in doing a live or an acoustic record. A cool, stripped down record is what I wanted to represent us, I wanted to make it very original.
HRH: How did you find yourself amongst musicians that are not Heavy Metal or Hard Rock players?
Tony: These are the people I mostly hang out with. I live in New York City, these are the musicians that live here and most aren’t Metal musicians. If I lived in L.A., I would have more friends that are Metal musicians than in New York City. It’s hard to find Metal guys that live in New York City.
HRH: Wow, Tony, that is hard to believe!
Tony: Even going back to the heyday of ’80’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal bands, there weren’t many here in this New York City area. There was White Lion, Danger Danger and Bon Jovi in New Jersey. In the 80’s there really wasn’t a lot of successful Metal bands in New York. Back in the ’80’s, there were so many Metal bands in L.A., you could times it by a thousand, ten times, compared to New York. As time moves on, I lose contact with Metal people and the clubs we used to play or they are out of the music business completely as well.
HRH: So the direction of your music for this album was already clear?
Tony: As we got into recording, this album took on a life of it’s own and it evolved. I was seeing my vision through. I told the band to take it as far as they want and they did. Some of the songs you will hear show that the drum beat, keyboards, and background vocals are much different. We gave the songs a totally new treatment, this was the catalyst and reason for my doing this. This album makes me appreciate the songs more. I didn’t want to compete with the original songs, instead I wanted to exploit the melodies and bring out the more obscure songs and give them attention. With this album, I’ve closed the door to a chapter of my life. Saying I’m done with ’80’s Hard Rock may upset a lot of people.
HRH: “Round Trip” could easily been a more mellow album or perhaps heavier? How did you and the other musicians find that perfect in-between?
Tony: It’s all about the song choices and I was very conscientious of that. This could easily have been a ballad album. I had to choose key songs while keeping the record upbeat. “Lonely Nights” and “Satellite” are upbeat songs. These upbeat songs are scattered across the record in order to keep the album from being too boring. This album is vocal and melody driven.
HRH: “Anywhere But Here” has a Beatlesque quality about it, am I off base by saying this?
Tony: Probably not. Brandon Wilde (bass guitarist) wrote this song with me. Brandon is an incredible songwriter. The press release stated this song was written special for this album and that’s just not the case. “Anywhere But Here” was written and demoed three years ago. Brandon had mentioned to me that we have this song and I said yeah! The rest of the band is not on this track due to it being a demo from three years ago. Brandon and I will be doing the bulk of writing on our next album. “Anywhere But Here” doesn’t represent where I’m going in life, none of my songs represent per se where I’m going in my life.
HRH: Chris Foley on electric guitar really gives these songs on “Round Trip” that ’70’s Classic Rock tone and vibe. Is this what you were aiming for?
Tony: That is the music I grew up with. My heart lies in ’80’s bands and we were all in our early twenties in 1984 when we (TNT) were signed. We were taking that ’70’s music with us though. My heart also lies in the ’70’s music. Chris has that awesome, electric moody vibe in his playing. I did not want us to show one iota of TNT, not try to do anything like TNT, except chord structures and we even changed some of those.
HRH: Amy Harnell, what a voice! Where has she been hiding?
Tony: She’s my wife! The question really is, where have I been hiding her!
Tony: Amy was singing shows with me, doing background vocals. She is a natural and became a part of this project. Her maiden name is Amy Anderson and she was a world class ballet dancer. When we first got together, I happened to go visit her in Germany to see her performing, then I heard her sing, we have been together nine years since. Amy sung on TNT stuff, like “Song 4 Dianne” on the “My Religion” album from 2004. Amy also played the flute on this song. “Ready To Fly” on “Round Trip” really showcases her tone. Amy had the opportunity to do a video for us, “Northern Lights”, it was a thrilling opportunity, to really put her out there. Fans should check out our “Northern Lights” video. She has the voice and presence on stage that’s incredible!
HRH: Reworking these TNT and Westworld songs must have taken you down memory lane. What’s your greatest moment that happened to you thus far in your life?
Tony: For something non-music related, meeting my wife was a great moment in my life! Musically, there are many, many different moments. Making this record, “Round Trip”, was during a time of great adversity for me. Making a simple record equaled to a spiritual experience for me. This album represents a new chapter and a new beginning in my life. Receiving a worldwide record deal with TNT was something else, it was something my other friends were not able to do. For us to have done it as TNT was an achievement.
HRH: Do you see Tony Harnell & The Mercury Train as a representation of your fantasy band that couldn’t be pulled off 20 years ago?
Tony: No, it couldn’t be pulled off then. Twenty years ago I would have had a different idea of what I wanted in a band, a band with shredding guitar players! This is a very special project and still it’s not the end all and be all of where I’m moving forward. Brandon Wilde is not just a great bass player, he is an incredible songwriter, he has helped put this band together and he is a catalyst. “Round Trip” really represents what I wanted to do with these songs. A solo record is probably going to happen. There will be co-writers for the solo record and it will be recorded in different parts of the world. “Round Trip” will let these musicians in Mercury Train show what they can do and it’s not Heavy Metal. Led Zeppelin and the Beatles covers are in the realm of their ability though. I just did not want “Round Trip” to be a solo album, I wanted to separate the two.
HRH: Do you stay in touch with Magnus Karlsson?
Tony: Occasionally, yeah. We have not spoken recently though. We are great friends.
HRH Note: Magnus Karlsson was the guitarist and keyboardist for Tony Harnell’s Hard Rock/Heavy Metal band – Starbreaker, from 2005 to 2008. Magnus is currently a guitarist with the Power Metal giant – Primal Fear.
HRH: I have always and still consider you a premier vocalist. Who has been your vocal influences throughout your career?
Tony: There are a lot of obvious ones. I’m sure people won’t flinch when I say Rob Halford. I was obsessed with early ’70’s Priest and early ’80’s music. I’m a ’70’s Priest fan. “Stained Class” personally, is my most favorite and it’s the most interesting and artistic record I’ve ever listened to. “Stained Class” had very overlooked production up to that point in time, maybe not as good as later records by Judas Priest. “Hell Bent For Leather” is a Priest album that is very close to me, very influential in my early years. “Hell Bent For Leather” and “Stained Class” are my dual all time favorite! Going backwards, there was Folk, Country and a lot of Beatles played in my house as a kid. My mom was an opera singer! There was Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and John Denver came later for me.
HRH: That’s some diversified exposure, which is great.
Tony: There was so much cool 60’s music being played when I was a kid. Crosby, Still and Nash, I absorbed all that stuff! When I started to buy records, it was David Bowie, Elton John and Led Zeppelin. Today, it’s the ’60’s and ’70’s music that influence me. Ironically, as I got older, Rob Halford isn’t as strong an influence as say, twenty years ago for me.
HRH: You’ve changed artistically, Tony.
Tony: I don’t want to belittle Heavy Metal music, it’s just that I could not continue on with a band that has just cult status. Yet, if you are a successful Heavy Metal band, that’s great. If it’s Heavy Metal, it’s not in my heart anymore, there’s no living in it for me.
HRH: Tony, you will always have some Metalhead in you, won’t you?
Tony: Of course I will.