The Mojo Gurus’ Kevin Steele: Who asked ya? We did.
Influenced by the glam rock of the ‘70s, Mojo Gurus — Kevin Steele (lead vocals, harmonica), Doc Lovett (guitar, vocals), Vinnie Granese (bass, vocals) and Sean Doyle (drums, vocals) — revel in rock ‘n’ roll abandon on their brand new album Who Asked Ya?, which features the hard rocking single “Where You Hidin’ Your Love,” a track mixed by Tommy Henriksen (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper). Steele recently phoned from his Florida home to talk about the new album.
You spent your early years in Cleveland but moved to Florida after your mother’s murder. That can’t have been an easy start to life.
Yeah. As you can imagine, I had a pretty miserable childhood. My mother always had music playing in the house. From the time I was very young, I liked music. After the tragedy, music became an escape from my shitty reality. In particular, I remember in middle school I had my transistor radio and music was an escape. At the library, you could use a turntable and you could play an album they had or bring one in. If you had a free period, you could go in and listen to music. I never forget, I had this Italian friend who brought in his big sister’s albums. He had David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Lou Reed’s Transformer and Mott the Hoople’s Mott. They looked like spacemen to me. I became enamored of glam rock. This was early- to mid-’70s, the height of that music. As a kid with an unhappy home life, that type of music became essential. Cleveland, for some reason, was always a stronghold. When Bowie and Mott and all those bands came over, those bands always did well. Hence, the song “Cleveland Rocks.” I moved to Florida and it was culture shock. I was into Lou Reed and Iggy and the New York Dolls. Those were my bands. I moved to Florida and it was bam, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Don’t get me wrong. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd—the original band, not the tribute band that it’s devolved into. The original was one of America’s great rock bands and rivaled the Rolling Stones in a lot of ways. I came to Florida and I had friends who went hog hunting and they took me out on the river and there were big ass alligators. It was a culture shock.
Don’t the influences of glam and Southern rock clash?
Yes, but I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd as a tough street band. They were tough kids from Jacksonville. The Mojo Gurus is a mixture of those two influences. Before the Gurus, I had Roxx Gang. We were Virgin Records first rock ‘n’ roll signing. We suffered from bad timing. We got signed in ’88 and we were a total glam rock band. I thought we were different from hair metal. My influences were ’70s bands I had been doing it since my first teenage bands and people thought I was a nut. They thought we were transvestites. Then it exploded from California. We got lumped in with that and suffered from the backlash. Being from bumfuck Florida, we didn’t get signed until 1998. I remember recording our first album and watching Nirvana on TV. That was the end of anything associated with hair metal, even though were wrongly associated with it. We still managed to sell a quarter of a million records though.
Who’d you work with on that album?
I worked with Bo Hill and Nigel Dick, who did the Guns N’ Roses videos. I knew from the time I was a young guy and dreaming of being in a rock n’ roll band and making my plans that glam rock had a window and I had limited time. You know that song “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter? By the time Gary Glitter had that big hit, he was already a 40-year-old man and packing himself into these tight clothes. He looked grotesque. I knew I only had so many years to do it. From the first to second Roxx Gangrecord, I got a lot bluesy. We started making the transition. We had a CD called Mojo Gurus, which was a tribute to all “mojo gurus” — all my influences. I could see the glam thing was over and I’m a lifer. I want to do this in a cool suit. At the beginning, it was an alter ego. The Mojo Gurus would open for Roxx Gang. We started having so much fun with that that we focused on it. Now its 15 years later and the guys I play with haven’t been in Roxx Gangso when people say the Mojo Gurus are Roxx Gangwith a new name, it kind of irks me. We are completely a separate entity. We’ve at least earned that.
Mojo Gurus’ first album, Hot Damn!, came out in 2004. What was the experience of making that album like?
That was a self-produced and self-recorded album that we made in a house we turned into our studio. I never had so much fun making a record in my life. We’re a live band for sure; that’s where we shine. Recording studios can be a cold and sterile environment. We’re never in a shortage for songs. To me, the whole thing is about capturing that energy of a live performance in the studio. That’s a big deal for most bands. Back then, when we had no one interpreting our music but us, we gained a lot of experience. It’s not our best album but it was our most fun to make. We had some ideas and there was nobody telling us what to do.
Shakin’ in the Barn came next. What was it like working with producer Jack Douglas on that album?
Now, you got from a bunch of guys going from running wild to working with a Grammy winner. He worked with the New York Dolls, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick for Chrissake. He’s the guy you see in all those specials about John Lennon. I have never been more excited going into a project in my entire life. You can imagine. I have never been more disappointed coming out. I have a lot of respect for him. He has worked on some of the greatest rock albums of all time, but we just didn’t click. I don’t know if it was the age difference or it was because he was a liberal New Yorker coming to conservative Florida, but we didn’t hit it off. There are some great songs and some sound good. But when I listen to it, I can hear there’s a lot of tension.
Talk a bit about the new album. What were you trying to accomplish sonically?
With time and experience and after working with Jack, we learned a hell of a lot. We knew what we were doing. Let’s Get Lit was our best sounding album and now Who Asked Ya? is even leaps and bounds above that one. We’re really proud of it.
The album opener “Where You Hidin’ Your Love” features a great horn arrangement. What’s the story behind that tune?
Everybody in my band is a self-taught musician. I write the songs and I can barely play three chords on a guitar. I can’t even express my ideas on guitar to my guitar player half the time. When I write a song, the lyrics and melody almost come simultaneously. If I have an idea for the rhythm, I sing it to my guitar player. With the horn arrangements, it’s the same thing. We worked with this keyboard player for years who did a stint with The Hunter Ronson Band. We have a telepathic thing. I don’t have to tell him. I had some ideas for horns for the single and the instrumental and I heard them in my head. I just sang them the horn parts. They played it and it came out great. I give them the cake and they put the icing on. I know that I can’t chart music but I can express myself.
A song like “Devil to Pay” hints of the Rolling Stones or Mott the Hoople. Talk about how those bands have influenced you.
There’s no getting away from your influences. Ian Hunter is still rocking, but he’s not wearing platform boots and satin suits anymore. Mick Jagger doesn’t wear rhinestone spangled jumpsuits anymore. Unfortunately, Steven Tyler never grew out of it. It’s starting to get creepy. I don’t like music snobs who think if a band didn’t come out in the last ten minutes, they’re not cool. If music makes you happy, don’t let people make you feel bad about what kind of music you listen to. But on the other hand, as an artist, you have to grow.
So the influences remain, but you have to evolve.
I wanted to do this until I couldn’t do it anymore. I thought that to do that, my music had to mature and hopefully my audience would follow me. I can’t always be running around in skintight pants and eyeliner. I always said that someday I would an old man in a cool suit singing blues songs. The songs I wrote as a kid in Roxx Gangjust aren’t relevant. Mick still knows how to shake his ass but he doesn’t do it in a jumpsuit. I know it sounds trite but music was truly my salvation and allowed me to rise above everything. Sometimes, I get criticized because it’s not that cool to be a good-time rock ‘n’ roller. That’s why we called it Who Asked Ya?. If you think rock is dead or have these preconceived notions what it should be, who asked you? Anybody who starts analyzing rock too much misses the point. To me, rock ‘n’ roll is like a tribal gathering. I’m not trying to make people think too deep about world problems. I want my music to be an escape from that. I had a miserable fucking childhood. I could have gone a totally different way and become all introspective on a downward spiral singing about how shitty life treated me. I’ve got more reason to sing the blues than most people. To me, rock ‘n’ roll is about that feeling you had in high school when it was Friday afternoon and you put that music on that said weekend and party time. I want to make people feel good. If that’s a crime or that’s passé or that’s dated, then too bad.