As one of the most respected guitarists to ever come out of Scandanivia, Kee Marcello has more than made his mark on the music world. From starting out in Easy Action in the early eighties, to where he is now as a solo artist, there have been many ups and downs in the Swede’s career. Best known as a member of Europe during their megastardom 1980s heyday, Marcello was right in the eye of the storm when ‘The Final Countdown’ thrust them into the stratosphere. On the eve of the release of his new album ‘Scaling Up’, we sat down with the amiable player for an exclusive in depth chat about getting even with grunge, being mobbed by 7,000 fans, and becoming a prisoner in paradise. Out of this world: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Kee, how are you today?
I’m very well. I’m going through a really busy patch right now, but it’s fun.
You’re in the middle of a short U.K. run of dates. Have you been enjoying those?
Oh, it’s been amazing. We started with a secret gig in London at the Cavern [in Raynes Park], like a dress rehearsal, and it was great. It was crowded and sweaty, and just like it’s supposed to be. Yesterday we had the real tour premier, at the Robin 2 [in Bilston], and it was magic. So we’re in the midst of it now, and it feels awesome.
The dates are in support of your new album ‘Scaling Up’.
We’re really excited about the release of the new album, especially the way we got the production; and everything from song writing, mixing, mastering – I’m really happy with it.
So a lot of work went into this one?
Oh definitely, yeah. It was actually one of the most simple albums that I’ve done, because once we decided where to go, it was all very instinctive; the song writing and everything. Unfortunately a lot of albums today are recorded, more or less, on a computer, but we wanted to do it the old school way; and we did it in the real nice recording studio called the Top Floor Studio in Gotherburg, Sweden. We chose to do it this way because it’s organic, and real.
Two of the tracks have been released so far. First up is the title track, which is a great, grooving rock number.
Yes, ‘Scaling Up’ is a bit of a statement; a groovy, riffy, song which could have been written in the seventies, as well as the eighties or nineties, which I love about it. It’s just timeless; three chords, and it’s exactly the kind of music I like to listen to.
On the other side, is the more melodic ‘Don’t Miss You Much’, which shows off a more sensitive side.
‘Don’t Miss You Much’ is more in the tradition of the singer / songwriter sounding; the ones that you would write on an acoustic guitar. It’s really one of my favourites on the album, and it’s the band performance that makes it as cool as it is. It doesn’t sound like an acoustic song at all, I mean, it has punch and groove, and I’m really happy with that.
Obviously, the song writing is a major factor, but surely there’s plenty of guitar solos on the new album?
Oh, absolutely - it wouldn’t be possible to make a Kee Marcello album without loads of guitar solos! I sing too, but I’m a guitar player by heart, and I like to include both.
How do you approach your soloing?
Actually, I’ve been doing this for so long that I’ve learned a lot of different techniques that it comes very instinctive, and it’s different all the time. Some of the songs I realise that I need a really strong melody line, and I can compose it, and perform it, and try out different ways of doing it, and some of them are more like, improvisation; you play to the track, and as you go you realise exactly what’s going to be on the track. There are several different ways of reaching the end result. It’s always been like that – I never have one idea of how to perform a solo.
One of your more famous solos is from Europe’s ‘Superstitious’, which is very melodious with lots of fast shredding thrown in. Would you say that that is your defining approach?
Yeah, I would say that’s my invention; to approach it that way, and I think there’s always going to be elements of that ‘thing’. This is something I’ve carried with me for many years; torn between the melodic, and the more technically-challenged ways of doing a solo.
You must still be really proud of that track; it is still in your set list, after all.
Oh yes, definitely. Although, I have to say, nowadays I could almost say that the solo is as famous as the song, or even more! If you look at all the guitar blogs – I follow a few of them, and the new fans that get into melodic guitar playing, they listen to the solo and they go; “that’s a great solo, what song is it off?!!”, which is kind of funny, because obviously it wasn’t a smash hit for Europe. But, I really love that song, and it works really well with the band in my version. I did a re-recording of some of the Europe songs on the album before ‘Judas Kiss’, ‘Redux: Europe’, and I did it, amongst others.
It must be strange now so see that John Norum has to play your solo, after you had years of playing his solos on other Europe songs.
Yeah, it’s kind of strange, absolutely, but on the other hand, that’s pretty common, isn’t it? I think it becomes very obvious when somebody’s trying to mimic or redo such melodic solos like mine, for instance; ‘Superstitious’ or ‘Let The Good Times Rock’ - with the melodies, it’s a song within a song. I mean, Thin Lizzy, they changed guitar players all the time, but it wasn’t the same thing.
You joined Europe when they were just about to embark on the tour for ‘The Final Countdown’. That must have been a real dream come true for you.
No, it wasn’t like that at all. Europe wasn’t big anywhere except in Sweden, and a little bit in Japan before ‘The Final Countdown’. People forget that; Europe weren’t big at all. It started to happen after I joined the band. I joined on October 21st , and it took some time for the song to travel the charts and everything, so about the time when we started to rehearse for the tour, that’s when it really took off. So when we embarked on the tour in 1987, we went from clubs to theatres to arenas. I know the media loves success stories; like the nobody guy got the dream job, but I was already really famous in Scandinavia, and I was already in a band [Easy Action] that already had dream contracts with Warner in America. So when I joined Europe, it was more like when Manchester gets a new player in the team; a transition thing.
So joining Europe was a bit of a gamble for you, really?
I knew the guys. Stockholm hasn’t a huge music scene – everyone knew each other. I bumped into them, and quite recently before that I had worked with them on a project called Swedish Metal Aid. That was a thing that I did, and Bob Geldof was involved. It was something that happened after Live Aid and all that; it was the same thing, but with all the rockers in Scandinavia. So, I produced it and Joey Tempest wrote the song, so we already knew how to work together.
What was it like being in the bubble when ‘The Final Countdown’ exploded worldwide?
It’s actually hard to describe, because, first of all it happened so suddenly. The band had been in Japan once before – they’d played clubs and did a couple of interviews, but when we landed in Japan the first time after the release of ‘The Final Countdown’, we got picked up by some people at the record label, and they looked really pale. They said; “we have a big problem – lots of people, lots of people!” And I thought; “okay, calm down, for Christ’s sake!” So I asked; “How many are there?”, and there were 7,000 people! We were like; “cool, 7,000 people; that’s more than come to our concerts. That’s awesome!”, and what we didn’t realise is that 7,000 people outside an airport; that’s endangering life. They were crazy, and I think everyone was taken by surprise there. The walk from the arrivals hall to the cars, it was war. We had, like, eight bodyguards, and I’m still surprised that we got into the cars alive. It was crazy. It was a big shock, a huge shock.
That sounds like an unbelievable scene.
This was like walking into a scene from the movie ‘300’; it was absolute mayhem, and a miracle that we survived all the way to the cars, with all the fans that were on top of the cars, under the cars, and the only thing I could think when we were approaching the cars was; it was like a Beatles documentary. It was difficult to understand, because for us it was overnight, and it just continued when we got back and when we went to American and did the first U.S. tour where we shot a documentary about it [‘Europe In America’]. It was just people everywhere, every city we came to, and it was an amazing feeling.
We recently spoke to John Leven and Mic Michaeli about that period, and they said that for them, it all happened so fast that it was difficult to take in.
I think we all were kind of stunned by the whole situation, but it came out of nowhere and took us all by surprise. Also, humans easily spoil, and after a while it became second nature, and we sort of expected it to be that way, all the way. But the thing is, it was like the big happening; all the radio stations were talking about the gig and tour bus coming to town. It was in an era when rock was king, and everybody was into hard rock, and we were close to the biggest rock band on earth for a while there, and that was an amazing feeling.
You finally got to put your own imprint on the band with the release of ‘Out Of This World’ in 1988. You must have felt empowered by that?
Absolutely; I was waiting for that day, and I can even say that you can hear the change in the sound during that year of ‘The Final Countdown’ world tour. I mean, a guitar player brings a lot of the sound to the band, obviously, and especially in music like this, and it changed, and I remember trying to change a lot of the riffs into open stringed sounding riffs; more AC/DC-ish, if you wish, just because I liked that, and I preferred that style. Throughout the years, on the recordings I have, you can hear how we progressed, and both of the albums that I’m on [‘Out Of This World’ and 1991’s ‘Prisoners In Paradise’] are quite different from any other Europe albums.
‘Prisoners In Paradise’, which followed it, is an album that tends to get overlooked.
It sold really well - I think it’s close to three million to date, but the reason why it’s a bit overlooked, is it happened in the midst of Grunge. It was really right then when everything started to happen [the change in the musical landscape], and we were one of the only bands that could have stood against the Grunge actually, because after the two very successful albums ‘Out Of This World’ and ‘Prisoners In Paradise’, not a lot of people realised that. A lot of journalists especially, thought these two albums were failures because of the massive success of ‘The Final Countdown’. Well, everything is relative, but how many albums sell between three and five million per release?
But the band decided to step away at that point?
We felt the winds of change, and we decided that we needed to take a break and rethink our careers and lives, but Sony wouldn’t listen to that; they really tried their best to try and make us do a follow up to ‘Prisoners In Paradise’. They didn’t see it like us; as long as you’re on the charts and you sell millions, but we felt it didn’t feel right, I mean, when Nirvana was the big stuff in the charts, we didn’t feel we belonged there, in a way. We didn’t have a problem with that; we just decided to take a break. And that became a very long break. We didn’t know that back then in 1992, but that’s how it was. I meet a lot of fans on tour, and I met this one guy who said; “The ’Superstitious’ solo was so good that it almost stopped Grunge in its tracks!” *laughing*
I wanted to ask you about a track you recorded with the band called ‘Yesterday’s News’ that was released after the band had split up.
Yeah, I wrote it too. During the world tour for ‘Out Of This World’, I was thinking about the changing times. I mean, it was easy to see what kind of winds that were blowing, and I wanted a harder album; I wanted to go back to 70s roots and all those riffs, and we recorded a lot of demos that the fans renamed ‘La Baron Boys’, and all those songs were actually refused by the record company.
It must have been tough having your material turned down by the record company.
What I thought was going to be the core of the ‘Prisoners In Paradise’ album; that was ‘Yesterday’s News’, ‘Wild Child’, ‘Rainbow Warrior’, a lot of those out takes, and what happened was, four Sony ‘suits’ came in and listened to the whole album and then were gone without saying goodbye. Then a couple of days later we get a phone call saying; “we’re not going to release the album like it is now”. My immediate reaction was; “why can’t we tell them to go and eat s**t and die?” Everybody in the band thought that way, but then the manager Herbie Herbert [Walter James "Herbie" Herbert II], he was a very wise man, and he said; “guys listen, we’ve just booked a world tour, and if you don’t have a new album out when that starts, you’re going to lose, like, ten million dollars”. So, they had us by the balls, literally. They don’t care about music, and the way they were reasoning, they realised that ‘Carrie’ was the biggest hit they had in that country, so they wanted more of that. I mean, I’m very happy with how it turned out anyway, but it could have been a different album if we would have stuck to the original plan.
In 1999, the band reunited as a six-piece with both you and John Norum on guitar, to see in the New Year with an outdoor gig in Stockholm.
It was a really strange thing to do, especially as the weather was really cold – it was minus ten degrees! It’s by far the coldest gig I ever did, I mean, we actually had to let the guitars be outside for ten minutes, because they would have been completely out of tune [due to the temperature difference] if they had have been in the van. So the guitars were ice cold as well!
You and John Norum played a synchronised solo on ‘The Final Countdown’ together, which was pretty special.
Yeah, that was cool, and a quarter of a million people saw the gig live. We were playing on a raft. This crazy billionaire, he was the owner of TV3, a really powerful media guy, and he built this raft and made it all possible to do this gig, and it was in front of the royal castle. We actually got a greeting from the King and the Queen; “the majesties want to let you know that they are watching the…” and they even said “gig!”, from the balcony of the royal castle. That was amazing!
Was there any awkwardness working with John and working out who would play which parts?
Absolutely no awkwardness whatsoever. A lot of media tried to make it out that there was a beef between the two of us, but I always liked him. We didn’t meet that often, if you think about it; we didn’t play in the band at the same time, except on that occasion. So, I met him when we both had a couple of beers in rock bars, and then everybody’s pretty friendly aren’t they? There was never a problem between me and John enough to divide the whole thing – we just had fun.
It’s been suggested that when Europe reformed in 2003 that the band wanted to do it with a two guitar line up, and that you stepped away at this time as it didn’t appeal to you.
That’s a story that we gave to the media, but it’s not far from the truth. What happened was, we were talking about doing a reunion, which was really a no-brainer after a quarter of a million people came to see us, and we had talks for a couple of years. We were busy doing other projects, so I think it was 2002 when we really said we’re really going to do this now - let’s talk about it. And as far as the talks about the situation with two guitar players, that’s what we talked about, and then, I don’t really know what happened. The next thing was that their manager visited me at my studio in Gothenburg, and tells me that they’re going to go for the five [piece line-up], and’; “you’re out”. So I never really saw the band - I just got the message that way. And since then, I didn’t have any incite into the politics of the group, so I can’t really say.
Would you have liked to have been part of the reunion?
Yeah. F**k yeah! I was so busy at the time that I didn’t really have much time to think about it. I had my own projects going, producing and writing and whatnot, but of course, that was always in the back of my mind that it would be fun to do the ‘revenge on Grunge’ tour! “We’re back, and you’re f*****g dead!” *laughing* I hate Grunge; Grunge destroyed rock and roll. All of a sudden these guys were playing three, four chords, out of tune, in dirty t-shirts coming on stage; “wow, it’s awesome that the crew gets to play! When are the rock stars going to get to the stage?!”
Are you still friends with the Europe guys?
I don’t know, I mean, I haven’t really seen them since we played back in Stockholm. I met them when I played a reunion gig with my old band Easy Action at the Sweden Rock Festival, and that was in 2006, and I haven’t seen them since. I work with a radio station called Rockklassiker, and Ian Haugland, the drummer, is a DJ there, and I bump into him occasionally, and we definitely don’t have a beef or anything; we’re good friends. John Norum, he came to my book signing in Stockholm; he just came to say “hi” - there was no beef there at all.
If another one-off gig came up, would you be up for joining the band again?
Well, with a one off gig, it comes with conditions though. I could do it; it’s actually a celebration of thirty years [since the release of ‘The Final Countdown’] this year, isn’t it? Also, after this tour I’m doing something called ‘Rock Of Ages’, and we’re doing all the big arenas around Sweden, and when we play at the Globe in Stockholm, after the gig, we’re going to have a release party for the new album at the Hard Rock Café, which is coincidentally exactly thirty years after we recorded the ‘Rock The Night’ video there. So we’re thinking about re-enacting the whole s**t video, with playing on ketchup bottles and all the funny things we were doing! I was actually talking to the CEO of the Hard Rock Café a couple of weeks ago, and he started talking about ‘Rock The Night’, and I said; “you know, if you mention the ‘Rock The Night’ video, people go: “Hard Rock Café”!”, and he said’ “yes, I know”, and I said; “you owe me, big time, m**********r!”
Finally, bringing things back up to date; what’s next for you?
Well, October is the ‘Rock Of Ages’ tour, and the release party for the album is in Gothenburg on October 13th, because the release date of the album is 14th. So at midnight, we start doing an acoustic set, and signing albums and a there might be a couple of surprises. Straight after that we go to Finland, and then we’re going to do dates in Norway, Sweden and Denmark; the whole of Scandinavia, basically, then continue out into the E.U. We’re going to play a lot on this album!
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'Scaling Up' is released on 14th October via Frontiers Records.