Ronson Ablaze! februari 2000 MEDIA

Richard Janssen interview

Richard Janssen was a founding member of the Fatal Flowers, which was probably the best and most successful band to come out of Holland in the late 80s. Mick Ronson produced two albums for the band: Johnny D. Is Back (1988) and Pleasure Ground (1990). Richard Janssen was the Flowers lead vocalist (and main songwriter>, and he went solo when the band broke up in the early 90s. In May 1993, he released his first solo album, Boys. Shortly before the album was released, he formed the group Shine and toured Holland throughout 1993 to promote the album. A second Shine album, entitled Modern Popmusic followed in October 1995. In between the two albums, Shine released three CD-singles with 3D-sleeves; Popmusic, This Is It and Are Friends Electric - and scored a massive radiohit with the first single. All singles have non-album tracks. In October 1996, Richard released a solo album under the name of Rex. The album, Love Baby Love was lim-ited to 1000 copies, all signed by Richard. It was basically a collection ot songs written for, but not recorded by Fatal Flowers and Shine. His latest release to date was the 1997 Christmas single; Santa, Please Bring Me A Gun.

How did you end up with Mick as your producer?

The very first album we made were called Younger Days. We wanted to work with Mick, he was one of our heroes. I don't remember how we got hold of him in the first place, but we arranged for him to see us at a gig in London. It was really like a low profile gig. We didn't have any money, so we just drove up there with the van, and we slept in the van! And he showed up, he just walked into the bar and said, 'I got your call, I thought I'd check you out', you know. He saw the gig and he liked it. But when we set out to do the album, he was already busy with another production. We couldn't wait, so we did that one with Vic Malle as producer.

For the next album we signed to Warner Brothers, and Atlantic in New York. They released Younger Days in America. So as far as I know, the story goes that Mick just walked into the office one day, the New York office, and he saw a poster of the Fatal Flowers, it was the first album, you know - and he said, 'Oh, I know these guys. I saw them a year or so ago in London, I talked to them'. And then I think one of the record executives said, 'You still want to work with them?', and Mick said 'Yeah!', so we made contact again! Actually he came to Amsterdam to meet us, and within an hour he was jamming with us! That's just how he is, so down to earth. Of course, when you meet someone like that, for us he was some sort of a legend - we didn't know what to expect. But it turned out to be really cool, you know.

Mick ended up producing two albums for you - the first was a hugh success, wasn't it?

The first one we did with Mick, "Johnny D Is Back" camo out on Warner Brothers and they put it out in America as well, on Atlantic - so yeah, it was quite a succes for us. When we did the second one we were already signed to a different record company who didn't have contacts or associates in America.

So Pleasure Ground wasn't released in USA?

No, it wasn't. That was one of the reasons ww finally split. With "Johnny D" we got to play in New York, it was a lot of fun, and something we wanted to do.

Did you tour the States?

No, we just played CMJ - a new music seminar. It was when we were with Atlantic, things were looking quite good then. But then Warner Brothers, our record company in Holland, said that because they had financial problems, we had to go. A very strange decision. All the Dutch bands had to go. which was kind of strange since we were a very successful band at the time. We soon ended up with another record company, though - we didn't have much trouble finding a new one!.

What can you tell me about your first LP "Johnny D is Back"?

We went to Woodstock, Mick actually lived there. We were looking for a studio and one day Mick just said, 'Why not come to Woodstock instead of me coming to Europe, to some really expensive studio? We thought it was a great idea, and our record company agreed - next thing we knew we were back in the States! It was nice there, Woodstock is not at all like the festival, which wasn't even held there. It looks a bit like Norway and Sweden actually, you know - with the trees and the forests in the countryside. Of course, nothing is like Holland!

I remember the first night we came there, we arrived very late - it was like 2 or 3 in the morning. It was totally dark and we couldn't see a thing. I was very tired and went straight to bed. I didn't have a clue where I was, really. I remember very well the next day when I got up. I went, 'Where am I?' And I opened the window and the first thing I saw, it was totally white - it had snowed that night, was this big deer staring at me when I opened the window! l'd never seen a deer in my life, I grew up in the city and there weren't many wild animals around! So that's a very vivid memory I've got. It was like, 'I'm on the other side of the world now!' plus it was great because we were in such a totally different surrounding, which for us was very inspirational. In fact, the studio was built in a home, there was a fireplace...

It sounds nice!

What can I tell you - we had fun too! And they had arranged a good house for us to stay in, a hot meal every night. It gave us plenty of time to work. Everybody was very friendly - neighbours were walking in and out of the studio, and Mick's daughter, of course - was stopping by every now and then.

She did some singing on the album as well, didn't she?

Yes. On the last song on "Johnny D Is Back" there is a big choir thing and we had Mick's wife, his daughter, the wife of the studio owner - everybody we could find. Lisa was in the studio a lot - she taught us how to play Mario Brothers! She was always playing with computers, so she taught us the game! She must be about 20 now. Where is she living now?

I am not sure. I think she lives in Long Island with her mother. She was interviewed by a British magazine a couple of years ago. She was planning on a musical career, but she hasn't released anything that I am aware of.

I remember her like a very small, like a 9 year-old girl. She was lots of fun. I remember we had her up when Mick was playing a guitar solo, you see he had certain things he would say to you, like 'just play', things like that. We had Lisa behind the desk and he was playing, and in the middle of the solo, Lisa pushed the button and said, 'just play, Dad - just play'. I remember that, yeah it was that kind of atmosphere.

You then went to Switzerland to record your next LP, "Pleasure Ground". That must have been very different?

Oh yes, I don't know why we ended up in Switzerland. I think we just - you know that sometimes you have to take what you can get. We were under pressure to get the LP finished, and you have to find a studio and of course everything is booked. So we just looked around and that was open. So we did that, and Mick came to Europs again. This time he brought Lenny the engineer. What was his name again?

Lenny de Rose?

Yes, Lenny Rose - he was a Canadian engineer, a friend of Mick. Totally weird guy. But they made a great team. That album was a totally different experience, of course. We had a different guitar player - the music had changed a bit as well.

Yes, there is a noticeable change in sound between the two albums!

Well, on the "Johnny D Is Back" album, 90% of the songs were written by the drummer and me. We worked out the songs together, and then the band spent some time in our rehearsal room, until we had them right. For the second album we did with Mick, most of the songs started with the four of us just playing in the rehearsal room. So that is probably why the sound is a lot heavier. It's more of a band sound. Remember we had a new guitar player then, and were jamming all the time.

In interviews at the time, you said that Mick taught you how to simplity things in the studio.

Yeah, especially with the guitar playing stuff. He had a very strange way of playing. I've never seen anything like it with other players. You could very well see that he had taught himself to play - at the time there weren't things like websites on how to play guitar, or many books on how to play electric guitar.

You had to listen to records.

Yeah yeah, and you didn't know how these guys played it. Today if you want to play like Johnny Lee Hooker, you can rent a video and see exactly how he played it, and eventually you get it right. Mick, he had to sort it out, so if you looked at his hands, Mick would pick up a guitar and start to play and I looked at his hands. He had a strange way of pulling strings and stuff - it was not like you would do it today, it looked very awkward - and you wondered, how does he do it?' But then you close your eyes and just listen...

You can also hear it on the Bowie albums, the way he was hitting the strings, which sort of makes the sound. I think nowadays, because of all the equipment you don't have to werk so hard on the guitar anymore - to make these sounds. Mick was from an era when the equipment wasn't all that good, the guitars weren't that good, the amplifiers weren't that good - so you actually had to work on the guitar to get a good, clean tone. And I think what made him special, was his tone - the way he hit the strings - it sounded like, 'wow - how did he do that?' It was just his way of actually hitting the strings with his right hand but also with his left hand.

I've read about musicians, who lent their guitar to Mick, and he played this beautiful tone, but when they tried to copy...

The tone wasn't there! Exactly, that was just the way he grabbed the guitar with his left hand and the way he struck it with his right. Also with the little riffs, he struck very hard and it still sounded very subtle. He was quite a special guitar player! I mean not so much a virtuoso - more somebody who worked on tone. If you can get a special tone out of a non-tonal instrument like the guitar.... it's not like the violin, you know!

Did he play a lot of guitar on your albums?

Oh yeah he did sometimes. He would pick ur a guitar and go 'maybe we should have something like this' and we would push the record button and use it on the album! Yeah, he played a little every now and then.

Keyboards as well?

He played keyboards on... there were so many I don't remember! There is a song on the second album "Pleasure Ground" which has a harpsichord sound. He played that on the keyboard. None of us were great keyboard players so some of the keyboard parts he did play. Especially in Woodstock, we didn't have a keyboard player there. I think we had one for the second album, a guy who also played with us live. Yeah, Mick played every now and then and he often gave tips on songs. I remember the song "There Were Times" - we played it a lot difterent in the beginning. And then he said, 'why don't you transpose the chorus - it will make it stand out more'. Lost of tips like that!

Didn't you play "Suffragette City" live?

Yes, and we did it with him once, in Holland. He was over to rehearse with us, I think it was wth the first one - we were still rehearsing but we had to do a show, a festival. So Mick just said, 'l'll come along'. I think we played "Suffragette City" with, no we played one of his own songs! I think he said he didn't want to play "Suffragette City" - 'l'll play one of my own songs'. We didn't know the song so he taught it to us in the dressing room before we got on! I had forgotten all about that!

You also covered "Both Ends Burning" by Roxy Music on "Pleasure Ground". Did you often play cover versions?

We usually did one or two in the encores. It varied - we would rehearse one and play it in the encores.

It makes for a nice change, doesn't it?

Yeah, it does - and every now and then it is good to play someone else's song, 'cause you play in a, chord progression you wouldn't normally think of, you know, and that can be inspirational.

Tell me what happened after the Fatal Flowers?

Well, after Fatal Flowers I didn't do much for a year or two. I produced an album for a Dutch band. Then I moved to London for a while, where Robin Berlijn also lived. He livod there for three years, but I only stayed for a few months. I had written material for a new album, and I started to work on that in a small studio in Amsterdam. I got to know the studio owner and I helped him rebuilding the studio and in return I could use the studio for my own stuff. So I spent a lot of time there, playing all the instruments myself and then..... I was finishing that album when I heard Mick was ill. I got to London to finish the album - I met with an engineer and we were in London. I knew his telephone number - he was staying with his sister, I think. I thought I should give him a call - I was working here with an album and maybe he would drop by? But I never got to talk to him, I think he already was very Ill - his sister said, 'he's not very well - he's sleeping now', and I was working 20 hours a day in the studio anyway. I got back to Holland, completed the album and than I thought I'd send him the tape because I really wanted him to hear it. That first Shine album is, for me anyway, it in very influenced by his way of playing, you know. I had learned many things from him when I was with the Fatal Flowers, I was on my own now, so I really would have loved him to tell me what he thought of it. Then I thought, well I still got about three weeks before the album is actually here - I'll just wait and send him the whole album not just the tape, you know. Send him the CD. That would be even better. But I actually got the CD the name day I heard he had died: It was really sad.
You know Mick was really easy to get along with. I remember once we were sitting in Switzerland, having lunch. It was a beautiful day outside, and he just loved to tell stories. And I remembor that day he told a few stories like -he was angry about it - he said a lot of people sort of ripped him off. He wouldn't say how, or exactly when. He said people would call him like, 'Oh Mick, we're having a nice little jam in the studio, would you come along and play a little guitar and we could have a lot of fun'. Or, 'We are working on a song and we are not quite sure'. And than he would come and he would play and he would do his thing, you know- and then a few months later it would be in the charts and Mick would hear his riff, and nobody ever said thank you or anything. He said that happened to him a lot, actually. He was always very cheerful, but that was the only time I saw him well - grim. Disappointed, I guess he was disappointed in all those people. There wasn't a lot that could get him down, but I could see that that really hurt him in the past. He did tel me about the Bowie song "Rebel Rebel" - he told me 'that was just something we were jamming in the van, in the tour bus with the other musicians. It turned into a song and it said < David Bowie >' - he was just too nice to people, Mick.

I remember in Woodstock also, there were people staying in his home and, I don't think they were living off him, but...

John Mellencamp once said that 'when Mick had money, everybody had money',

Yeah, that's true - the way he gave away guitars and stuff. I still have the wah-wah pedal I got from him. That was typical of Mick, we had to play a wah-solo or something and we didn't have one with us, or it was in very poor condition, so Mick said, 'wait a minute, I've got a box here somewhere'. And than an hour later he came back with this old box that was stuffed with wah's. They were all original Crybabys, you know - very nice. 'I played these thing: on that song, and that song, etc' he said - so I plugged it in and played it, it sounded great and immediately Mick would say, like 'do you like it? You can keep it'. I was thrilled of course, he had used it on some great records, you know - so you can imagine how excited I was! He wasn't really big or matarial things. In fact I remember we were playing stuff on guitars, we were mostly playing Fender guitars - but we had a little part that really should have been played on a Gibson, it had that warm sort of sound. 'Oh, we'll just get my old guitar down' Mick said - and that was the guitar he used on all the Bowie stuff! He went out and he returned with this really odd, wrecked case - and there was the guitar, it was totally covered with dust! The strings were all rusty and everything, and he went, 'hmmm, I haven't touched that one for a while...' - it was a beautiful guitar, you know. You would think he would cherish it but for him it was just a guitar! That was his attitude on a lot of things. I remember in the studio, he would say, in his funny accent, 'just play - just play' - I guess the two words really fitted, really summoned up what he was all about.

In closing, what can you tell me about your new band Rex?

Well, that's more like a solo project. And I bring in a few musicians, of course. A good keyboard player and a drummer. I bring in those people. Most of it I do myself. It's very low profile - I bring it out on my own label... they are very hard to get by. though! I do other things as well. Sometimes I do production work, and I sometimes design things. Records sleeves, tour posters etc. I have always been interested in that field - I designed all the Fatal Flowers and the Shine stuff as well, but l used a different name. The sleeves list a photographer/designer called Winston Harry or something. that's all me!

This interview was done by Sven Gusevik. For an example of his great Mick Ronson fanzine including this interview and some very rare photos of Mick Ronson with The Fatal Flowers contact Sven.

bron: Sven Gusevik, Ronson Ablaze februari 2000

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