For a generation of fans, Jake E. Lee is nothing short of a guitar god. The player who added his instantly-recognisable licks to ‘Bark At The Moon’, ‘Shot In The Dark’ and a host of other Ozzy Osbourne tracks, his place has been assured in hard rock history. Somewhat mysteriously disappearing from the music scene in the late 1990s, he returned in 2014 with his own Red Dragon Cartel. We sat down for an EXCLUSIVE in-depth chat with the elusive player, to discuss what brought him back, his days with Ozzy, and much more. Killer of giants; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Jake, how are you today?
Old and tired! I’ve learned how to say that in Spanish; I’m going to learn it in every language now. All my friends are tired of hearing that; “How are you doing?!” – “Old and tired!” so I’ve got to learn it in other languages.
You aren’t that old and tired, as Red Dragon Cartel is back. The band launched after your long absence from the music industry; why was the timing right in 2014 for your return?
Well, how do I put this? It kind of winds back to where I was maybe not happy, but I think complacent with not being in the music business, because it’s an ugly business. I was good with that, but I did start to get a little itchy after ten years or so. I was kind of jamming with bands every once and a while here in Las Vegas, and eventually, Kevin Churko, the producer, he initially contacted me because he was doing Ozzy’s albums. To be honest, I haven’t listened to Ozzy in a long time, so I don’t know which albums he did [Note; Churko produced ‘Black Rain (2007), and ‘Scream’ (2010)], but I know he did a couple of albums with Ozzy, but he initially contacted me because he also lives in Las Vegas, about what it would take for me to come back and play with Ozzy.
So you were in talks to return to Ozzy’s band?
Yeah, so those talks didn’t last long. I mean, basically I said; “Look, all I want is song writing credit for the stuff I wrote on ‘Bark At The Moon”, I said; “That’s all – if they do that, I’d be happy to, you know see what could happen with Ozzy and me, all these years later” . But, yeah, that was never going to happen.
So from there you formed Red Dragon Cartel?
Then he asked me if I’d be interested in doing anything. He had the studio, and he said; “Just come into my studio, put some ideas down”. He said; “I’ve a lot of musicians to access whatever you might need. Just go in there and do one song, and see if it feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, no problem, I’m not going to charge you for the time”. So, the first song that I actually put down was ‘Feeder’ [from the debut RDC album) with [Cheap Trick’s] Robin Zander singing on it, and yeah, after I did that one song, I got all excited. I hadn’t been excited about music in a long time, and that excited me, so I decided to do a whole album.
Did it surprise you that you had a fan base there that missed you?
Yeah, it did, because I’ve been out of the limelight for a long time; at least 10 years, maybe even 15. I was surprised because people move on. I kind of treated my leaving the business as a death, and people get over it. I mean, I just lost a dear friend recently, and you manage, you get over it, you move on, and I just figured that’s what was going to happen with me. But, yeah it was very surprising, and very heart-warming that there were people out there that actually still gave a shit about me. I mean, I figured I was long gone, but yeah, it was a very nice feeling.
You’re now readying the release of the 2nd RDC release ‘Patina’; are you excited to get it out?
I’m curious to see how people react to it. For me, it’s a more honest representation of my music than the first Red Dragon Cartel album. I mean, I’m proud of the first album, and there’s good songs on it, good performances, but it’s not the way I’m accustomed to doing an album. With Ozzy, with Badlands, it was a band, and you would go into a rehearsal hall, and everyone would set up, and then basically, I would present my ideas and we’d all work on it. It was a much more organic sort of process, and that way, you can tell immediately if something’s working or not, whereas the first Red Dragon Cartel album was sort of a piecemeal process, where they took the files from my computer.
So the first Red Dragon Cartel album was compiled from music you had stockpiled?
Yes. Even though I was out of the business, I still played music, I still wrote music, and because of the advent of the computer and all the audio software that was with it, you can do things by yourself. So I had a computer with a bunch of ideas on it, and those ideas were accessed by Churko and made into songs, but not in a way that I had previously done it.
There’s definitely a looser vibe on ‘Patina’ than on the debut Red Dragon Cartel album; you can hear a Bowie, psychedelia, and The Beatles influence on it.
Yeah, and all those things you just mentioned, I can see it. Yeah, Bowie, especially on the last song [‘Ink And Water’]. For this album, I kind of went back to my roots. While writing the album I was listening to a lot of Bowie, and just a lot of the stuff that I grew up listening to, which had a huge impact, as far as the songs on this record.
In terms of guitar, there are a lot of different textures and sounds on this album.
I’ve been into pedals for a while. In the early 90s I started collecting them, and I did a record for Japan, a solo record [1996’s ‘A Fine Pink Mist’] that was all instrumental, and for that record, at that point, in my collection I had, I think, 87 pedals, and a goal on that record was to use every single one somewhere! So that record has a shit tonne of pedals on it! Pedals are fucking great; they give you a whole new perspective on what you’re playing. It’s almost like picking up different guitars; you can play the same song with an old Strat, and it’s just going to come out different than if you picked up a Les Paul.
Do you still have all of those pedals?
I don’t have most of my pedal collection anymore, but I have a friend who has a bunch, and he lent me all his guitars and all his pedals when I was doing this record, and there was some really cool old shit that I got to play with. He had all these old pedals, all these old heads, old guitars, and I really went back to my roots. So it does sound different to the first one.
Did your famous ‘white pearl’ Charvel make an appearance?
No. We recorded all this in Pennsylvania on Anthony [Esposito, bassist]’s ranch studio, and I didn’t bring it. I don’t really bring that out. It’s actually kind of unplayable these days. It was probably unplayable back in the 80s, but it was just the guitar I was used to. It has a really narrow and skinny neck. I dealt with it back then because it was my main guitar, but on that guitar, it’s hard to play an open D chord on it, because the neck it got shaved down by Charvel way back when, and it’s so narrow at the nut that if you play to play an open D chord and you’re fretting the G string on the 2nd fret, the open D won’t sound. You really have to know exactly how you’re going to finger it, for it to work.
In a way it’s great to know that only Jake E. Lee can play that guitar!
Since I put it into retirement and I haven’t played it a lot. For me, it’s a really hard guitar to play. I showed Charvel, because they wanted to make a replica, but no, you can’t make a replica; nobody’s going to want it, nobody’s going to play it! They said; “Sure they will”, and I showed it to them, and they went; “Holy shit! How in the fuck did you play this thing?” But anyway, to answer your question, no, I didn’t even bring it out to the ranch.
In 2014, you made a return to Donington Park for the first time since headlining it with Ozzy in 1986; what was it like stepping out onto that stage again?
Well, it was fun just being able to do it. There wasn’t that many people because it was early in the day, but to play on a stage that size, many years later, it was really cool.
Did it bring back memories if when you played there before?
I have fond memories of the Donington shows that I had done previously. One was with Gary Moore back in ’84, and I remember that particular one. I went up to watch one of the bands, and as I did, I passed the tents of both Gary Moore and Van Halen, and they were both warming up. I could hear them, and it was a little intimidating, you know, to hear Gary Moore just doing his thing, and then walking by Van Halen’s tent and hearing him doing his thing. So I said; “Fuck! What the hell?! How am I going to play?”, so I said; “I’m not going to warm up; they’re warming up, I’m not warming up”, because then, I go out on stage, and if I suck, in my mind, I didn’t warm up! So I didn’t warm up, and I actually played really well, and at one point I looked over and I saw Eddie and Gary on the side of the stage watching me, and they both came up afterwards and said how well they thought I played. That was actually one of the highlights of my career, having Gary Moore and Eddie Van Halen approach me after the show and compliment me.
Were you a fan of Gary Moore?
I loved Gary. I listened to a lot of Thin Lizzy while I was writing this record. I always loved Thin Lizzy, and I thought Robbo [Brian Robertson] was a very underrated guitar player. I loved his playing. Their first guy, Eric Bell, he was really fucking good, and I don’t even know what he did after that, but his time in Lizzy, he was a really fucking good guitar player. Lizzy is known for their guitar players; even Snowy White.
‘Chinatown’ was a fantastic Snowy-era Thin Lizzy album.
Ok, I’m going to tell you this. I wrote the riff to ‘Havana’, and everybody’s saying; “Oh what a riff; where did that come from?”, and I have been hinting that I’d been listening to a song all day earlier. So when we came into the rehearsal room ,I was playing it, and then we started jamming on it, and then at the end of it, I went; “Fuck I wish I could come up with something that cool”, and Anthony looked at me and he said; “Why don’t you?”, and I go; “What am I going to do, just play it backwards”, and I kind of played it backwards, and holy shit, it worked. Because you’re Irish, I’m going to tell you. I’ve told that story to people, and they’ve asked me; “What was it?”, and I haven’t told them. But I’ll tell you just because you’re Irish; it was ‘Chinatown’. If you think about it, you can see where I got it.
Moving on to your time with Ozzy Osbourne, and which is your favourite of the two releases; Bark At The Moon’ or ‘The Ultimate Sin’?
Oh shit… I can’t really. They’re so different, both of them. ‘Bark At The Moon’ was my first major recording, so that will always hold a special place in my heart, and the fact that ‘Bark At The Moon’ [the song], which I wrote, musically, is still such an iconic Ozzy song, that’s so cool. But, it’s hard for me to differentiate between the two albums as far as what I like most. I will say that, for me, ‘Killer Of Giants’ was one of the highlight achievements for me, as far as song writing. Musically, I always loved that song, and with the whole intro to it. I think there’s like a minute and a half to two minutes where nothing actually repeats itself; it’s just a constantly moving forward piece of music. It’s almost orchestral. I can’t say which album I like better, but ‘Killer Of Giants’ is, I think, musically, one of the best songs that I’ve written.
From that era, ‘Shot In The Dark’ is such a classic; can you confirm that it is actually played with open tuning?
Yeah, it is. The song was originally written in [the key of] A, so you have the open strings that you can chug along with. The day before I was going to go into the studio to record my parts, the producer Ron Nevison told me; “Oh, by the way, ‘Shot In The Dark’ is in B now”. And I’m like; “Wait a minute, what?” He said; “Yeah, we moved it up so Ozzy’s vocals would work better”. Okaaay. So I had that night to figure out how to chord everything and fret everything, and it was just a lot easier for me to keep the open A chugging string, so I tuned that up to a B, a whole step, and I tuned the E, I believe, also up a whole step that they would match each other. So it’s standard tuning for E,B,G,D, and then the A and the E strings are up a little step. It made for some interesting chord inversions, so it worked out really well. During the Ozzy tours I would have a guitar specially tuned that way, but on the last Red Dragon Cartel run, we popped the song out, and I played it with a standard tuning. So, you can still play it in standard tuning.
Your time with Ozzy came to an end after ‘The Ultimate Sin’ run; is it true that you found out you were out of Ozzy's band via a telegram, and that you had no idea it was coming?
*Laughing* I had no idea it was coming, but it wasn’t by telegram! I mean, it was the 80s, and I guess people sent telegrams back then, but I didn’t get it via telegram. When I heard about it, that night –this was all in L.A. - Sharon Osbourne called me, and said she wanted to have dinner with me. I said “Okay”, so we went out, and she was buying, so it was a great dinner, and we went back to the hotel and we talked for a while. And I suppose there was clues in there, because she was talking about how; “Someday Jake, when you have your own band”, I think her major piece of advice was to be on time, because I’m notoriously late for everything! So she said; “When you’re leader of a band, you kind of need to set an example, and you need to be on time”, and that was the only clue I had, really.
So if she didn’t say you were out of Ozzy’s band at the dinner, how did you find out?
I came back home, and my roommate at the time was also my guitar tech, and he came back from the Rainbow, and he’d seen [Ozzy band mates] Phil [Soussan, bass], and Randy Castillo, [drums], and he said they came up to him and said; “So, what are you going to do now that Jake’s out of the band?!” So he ran back home and told me, and said; “Dude, did you just get fired?! , and I went; “No!”, and he went; “I think you did”, and I went; “No, I just saw Sharon, I just had dinner with her, and we talked and talked - I think she would have told me if I was fired!” And he said; “Well, that’s not what Randy and Phil said!”, and I was like; “Oh, come on!”
So what did you do?
So I picked the phone up, and I called Sharon back and said; “I just heard the weirdest rumour”, and she broke down and said; “Yes, it’s true”. And I said; “What, do you mean I’m fired?!”, and she goes; “Yes, that’s why I took you out to dinner”. *Laughing* “But you never said anything!”, and she said; “I know! I just felt too bad and I just couldn’t do it”, which people might find hard to believe because Sharon Osbourne, I mean, come on, she’s pretty ruthless. But we got along very well when I was in the band. I considered us friends back then, and just the fact that she was supposed to fire me and couldn’t, it’s hilarious in retrospect. That night, it wasn’t so hilarious. So yeah, I found out I was fired through my roommate.
When was the last time you saw Ozzy, face to face?
Holy shit, it was before I was fired. The closest I came was when I was just getting Badlands together [circa 1988] and we were having a meeting at the manager’s hotel somewhere in L.A., and I remember the drummer looked over my shoulder and said; “Hey Ozz!”, and I thought he was just kidding, and then I turned around and saw Ozzy, and Ozzy kind of skittled off quickly! And I turned around and looked over my other shoulder and that’s the only time that I’ve ever met [Lee’s eventual replacement] Zakk [Wylde]. Zakk’s there, and I got up from the table, and he looked a little, like he didn’t know what was coming. And I walked over to him, and I said; “Hi, I’m Jake”, and he goes [nervously]; “I know who you are”, and I go; “Well, I just want to wish you the best of luck, and if there’s anything I can ever do for you…”. That was the only time I ever met Zakk, and that was the closest I came to Ozzy after he fired me.
With Ozzy retiring, would you like to play those songs one more time before he bows out?
You know, he says he’s retiring, and this isn’t the first time I’ve heard it. Wasn’t it in the 90s when he said he was going to retire? I mean, I think he genuinely means it, when he announces it he’s adamant that it will be his last tour, but then I think he just hangs around for six months at home and gets bored, and then he makes another record. So, is this his last tour, I don’t know. It could be.
But if it is his last tour, would you like to play at least once with him again?
I did actually offer – not personally, but through my management – I said that, what would be really cool, I think would be if you could have Red Dragon Cartel open for the tour - and obviously that’s better for me than for him - but in payment for doing that, I said I would go up, and I’ll play a couple of songs, like ‘Bark At The Moon’, ‘The Ultimate Sin’, whatever, the songs that I actually played with him, back in the day. So I’d go up on stage, and do that. So the offer was out there, but it wasn’t taken.
When are Red Dragon Cartel heading back on the road?
We are, apparently planning on going back out on the road in late February, that’s in the U.S. And then April, we’re hitting Japan, and we’re trying to line up a tour from Japan going straight to Europe. I don’t know if it’s working out. To be honest, I didn’t really do that well the last time I was there in Europe.
Finally, you were briefly with Ronnie James Dio before Vivian Campbell got the job; is it a coincidence that the riff to ‘Don’t Talk To Strangers’ sounds a lot like ‘Bark At The Moon’?
It is a coincidence, but I’ve seen that; it’s even on Wikipedia if you look it up. Somebody on one of the YouTube channels that goes over guitar players, I watched it because I was the subject of it, and he even said that; “To this day, Jake E. Lee says that he wrote that riff”, and I didn’t! I didn’t; I’ve never said it, I don’t know where that rumour came from. I’ve heard the song, and I can understand because it’s got the sixteenth note going on, on the bottom, but no, I had nothing to do with that song, and I don’t claim to have written any of it. It is basically a coincidence.
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Red Dragon Cartel's 'Patina' is released on 9th November, 2018 via Frontiers Records. To pre-order, click HERE. For all things Jake E. Lee, visit Red Dragon Cartel on Facebook.