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Sledge Leather Interview

Sledge Leather interview
Performed via Skype May 2012
Sledge Leather

After an absence of more than two decades, fans of straight-up heavy metal can rejoice in the knowledge that the duo of vocalist Leather Leone (Chastain, Rude Girl, Malibu Barbi) and drummer Sandy Sledge (Rude Girl, Malibu Barbi, Warbride, WeaponsVan) have reunited in a new project, Sledge Leather. Oh yeah!!! Sledge Leather’s debut album, Imagine Me Alive, is a concept album that explores the life (or perhaps, lives) and afterlife of the protagonist, who has shuffled off this mortal coil. Each song stands on its own, but also has a different vibe when viewed in the context of the album’s over-arching theme.

Sonic Cathedral’s Robin Stryker sat down for a long chat with Leather and Sledge for a first in-depth look at Imagine Me Alive. Dive in to find out what they had to say about the album, their mentor Ronnie James Dio, pitbulls, video games, and much more!

Robin:  We are so happy to have Sledge Leather with us tonight to talk about their brand-new album, Imagine Me Alive! Jumping right in, would you tell us about the band please?

Leather:  It’s a band that has been very blessed to have worked with Scott Warren (keyboards) and Jimmy Bain (bass) from the Dio family. Anyone who knows anything about my history, knows what a blessing that is! Matt Weisheit, the guitar player, we found him in Germany, which is kind of ironic because we had played in Germany last year with a totally different band that we knew wasn’t going to work. Then we got the other two guys, Rick Lambert (live guitar) and Christoph Davidsson (live bass), through Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. I must say that Sledge has been the foundation of finding these people, running into these people, and coercing these people. So, it’s been a real blessing for us.

Robin:  Sledge, you and Leather have known each other for 25-plus years. How did you first meet?

Sledge:  The Leather/Sledge intro story is actually pretty funny. Lumbi (Lois LaRue), the guitar player for Rude Girl, and myself were just about giving up on finding the nail-spitting lead singer that we really needed to complete what Rude Girl’s vision was -- which was hard-core, attack, ripped shirts, black leather metal … a Sabbath metal band. Everybody came in and sang soft and sweet, without any kind of a growl or grit.

Getting frustrated, we put the word out to everybody, and somebody put a flier in (I think) Berkeley somewhere. We were in San Francisco, but they put it in Berkeley somewhere, on a telephone pole or something. Leather had just come across country from the East Coast to find us, and fate brought us together! She saw some random flier on a pole, and wasn’t going to call. But I guess her friend said, “Go, give ‘em a call, what the hell!” So she did.

She came in, and I swear to God, we had just said “thanks, we’ll call you” to a girl who left in a pink freakin’ tutu. You know, it’s sometimes cool if they’re wearing black tights and a pink tutu or a baby-doll shirt. You think, “Okay, maybe we’ve got something here. Maybe she’s going to blow our brains.” She did NOT. So, we were like “whatever,” and in walks this girl with kind of a Joan Jett haircut.

To make a long story short, Leather sang a little bit; Lumbi and I looked at each other; and Lumbi said, “Can you sing a little bit more like you just did?” “With the low growl?” “Yeah, with the growl.” Lumbi and I sort of smiled at each like “she’s not going to be able to do it,” and this chick turned around … we were doing Heart’s version of “Rock and Roll” by Zepplin … and put her head down into the microphone, and this sound came out that just was like (gasps) a Zen experience! It just QUELLED every bit of anxiety that we had had for the past year looking, and we were like “Yeah!!!” And that’s how we met Leather.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Of the scores of interviews that I’ve done, I don’t think I have interviewed a single band with a female drummer. Out of all the instruments, in all the world, what drew you to the drums? I mean, you studied drums at the Musicians Institute and were obviously serious about your craft.

Sledge:  I’m sorry that you haven’t interviewed more female drummers. It’s a rough road for us. It wasn’t exactly smiled upon when I was a kid, and I’m just one of those people who is kind of obstinate and single-focused sometimes. There just wasn’t another option for me. I just always HAD to play the drums, and knew how to play the drums.

The first time I sat behind a drum set, I think I was seven years old. My dad took me to my cousin’s house, and I went downstairs looking for something to do. I remember seeing it, and ran upstairs kind of shaking, “Can I play it?” They said “yes,” and I put on some random record, sat down, and I just knew how to play right away. I was always drawn to the drums. I remember the first time I saw a real drum set in my life. It was just one of those things. Even now, I’m attracted to drums.

Robin:  If I were a parent, my nightmare would be a child who wants to learn the trumpet or drums. (laughs)

Sledge:  (laughs) I lucked out! I TOTALLY lucked out in that respect. School told me, “Girls don’t play drums. You’ve got to play the flute.” We went home, and I was pretty sad. My parents got divorced at that time, and my stepdad … I guess he was trying to win me over … they were going on their honeymoon, and he said, “You know what, we’re going on our honeymoon. I’m going to take you to Toys R Us and buy you anything you want.” I was like, “What?! Okay, this is working out.”

I knew exactly where the drum set aisle was, and exactly where the one toy drum set that they had was. I looked up and pointed at it. My mom was like “Oh no!” But my new dad said, “I never break a promise.” And he doesn’t. BAM! I got my drum kit. My mom was usually home during the day, and I’d play after school. God bless her, I’d ask, “Is it too loud for you?” And she’d say, “No, you play well. You play good. It’s good to listen to that.” So, it’s a combination of all those things that helped me to realize my love.

Robin:  Leather, the last that many fans saw of you was during your final tour with Chastain in 1991. After 20 years, what made you get back together with Sledge to record the Ronnie James Dio tribute, “Egypt”?

Leather:  I get that question a lot, and a lot of different answers pop up because I think there are a lot of reasons. But the loss of Ronnie James Dio was very significant for the whole world, and definitely for me as well. We had gotten together that weekend in Los Angeles to celebrate his life, and really just started soul-searching and that corny thing of reevaluating your life. Sledge has ALWAYS said, “Why don’t we just see if we can get something together?” So I agreed to at least go into the studio to see if it excited me anymore and to see what it would sound like.

We were like, “Hey, we know ‘Egypt’. Let’s do that!” (We also did a version of “Rock Candy,” which is running around YouTube somewhere.) Through that, it just reignited something for me. It was all about (as I said to Sledge), if I couldn’t do it as well or better, then I was going to stop. I had my small pocket of stuff that I did. So, I would say that throughout that year, things just began and started okay, so I kept going. You know, I’m here, and we’re going to move forward!

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Sledge Leather have cited Ronnie James Dio as your biggest influence, something that is even more poignant with it being the second anniversary of his death. What is your favorite Dio moment?

Sledge:  Oh man, (laughs) I’ve got two of them. One of them is a long story, but the other one is him putting his arm around Leather and I. We saw him … I think it was The Last in Line. We saw him many times, but this one was The Last in Line because I remember the dragon off in the distance on stage. He put his arms around us, and just looked at us kindly and sweetly and seriously, and said: “You girls have got what it is. Don’t stop. You girls have got what it is. Don’t STOP.”

Leather:  Oh gosh, my favorite Ronnie James Dio memory is probably: In 1982 or maybe ’83, I was with Sledge in a band called Rude Girl, and we went to see him up here on (I think) the Holy Diver tour. Sledge is renowned for sneaking into places, but anyway, I had lost her as usual. Back then, we had cassette tapes, and we had our Rude Girl demo tape. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle … which, by the way, she still does; she whistles like a dog … and I knew that Sledge was somewhere. She was up on the stage, then we were backstage and on the bus with Ronnie James Dio. He was listening to the Rude Girl material, and talking to us really sincerely about it. I think that was the greatest memory. The things that he told me and the impression that he made, even though it was a long ago.

Robin:  I was really stunned to read that, on the strength of the “Egypt” cover, Sledge Leather were invited to perform at the Keep It True Festival in Germany, which is a huge deal. Would you tell us more about that?

Leather:  Yeah, it was a surprise to me, but people in Germany hold onto things. If they love you, they love you. They had actually gotten in touch with me, and wanted us to come this year (I believe), so I was like “COOL, wonderful, wonderful!” I mentioned it to Sledge, but she wouldn’t have it. (laughs) Then she started talking to them, and actually got us in last year, which is pretty phenomenal. But again, those people liked what I did before. Once they believe in you, they really hold onto you. So, that was kind of the beginning of it all.

Robin:  Does that seem to be something that is unique to Germany, or do your fellow Yanks have the same sort of long-lived memories?

Leather:  I think (for me) I just get more feedback from back there. It seems like people that worked in the ‘80s or ‘90s can still go back there, and it’s a different time over there. I mean, they are open to everything. Again, I’m thinking of an interview I saw with Ronnie a few years ago, and they were talking to him about the same thing -- about how he always played over there. He said, “This country has kind of become the land of American Idol.” So I think it really stays over there.

There is DEFINITELY a core of people here. But most bands (I believe) can go over to Germany, even if you’ve had just a demo floating around, and there will be a group of people (even if they don’t know you) who will show up to support you. I don’t know what that is, whether it’s the oldness of their country or the renaissance of it all, but I think it’s different over there. You’ll even hear the big bands talk about how South America and Europe just have a different hunger. I don’t know if it’s the over-saturation that we do here, so it’s more special to them maybe.

Robin:  Did you realize going into the Keep It True Festival that you would come out the other side with a hunger to create and release an album?

Leather:  In my mind, I thought, “What a blessing! We’ll just go do this, and maybe some people will ask us back.” And there you have it. (laughs) But after spending more time with Sledge … her energy sucks you in, and she is such an amazing songwriter … it just kind of grew on me. We were just sitting around, and I had gotten used to that because she lives in LA and I live in San Francisco. So I had gotten used to going back-and-forth and that creative force again. You know, she always has these great ideas.

For me personally, I don’t think that I went into it like, “Okay, here we go!” Sledge (I’m sure) was like, “Okay, here we go!” Again, I thought we would be asked back to a couple of festivals, and that would be it. But I think that, once you’re creative, you’re always creative, so I got back into it, yeah.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Sledge, I understand from your press kit that Sledge Leather is basically finishing what you and Leather started in Rude Girl. What do you mean by that?

Sledge:  Well … hmmm, let’s see. How do I say it in a short amount of time? We got thwarted. After we found Leather and the bass player (then found another bass player), and the record labels found us, we played bigger and bigger shows, and got bigger and bigger. The record label wanted to make Rude Girl the equivalent of a female AC/DC. We were actually heavier than that … we were more of a cross between Sabbath with the rhythms or musical hooks of AC/DC, but the tone of Sabbath. We had a seven-year deal with CBS, and the day we were going to sign the contract, it fell apart. Unfortunately.

That vision, that drive to create what Rude Girl was -- what Rude Girl is, really -- never died in Leather or I. So this is a chance to pick that up where it got thwarted, and see it forward. A lot of time has passed, so we’ve grown and there is a lot more material, but we find ourselves going back. Like “A Taste of Night” (the seventh cut on the album) is a Rude Girl song, and it’s just one of them that we’re going to do.

Eventually, we’d like to tell the whole Rude Girl story, which is kind of a big part of history … of female metal history, if there such a thing called “female metal history.” There is, because it turns into the Riot Girl Act … no, the Riot Girl Movement (I guess it wouldn’t be the “Act”) … and the whole girls coming out from behind the fence and saying, “Look at me, look at who I am!” It’s an important story.

Robin:  For you personally, does creating this band and releasing the album feel like coming full-circle?

Sledge:  Well, not yet. But we’re traveling around the circle, that’s for sure!

Robin:  Leather, you have been very frank in previous interviews about just how uncertain you were about yourself when you were first starting out with Rude Girl, and that having “handlers” to tell you where to go and what to do was part of the reason that Chastain seemed like a better fit. At what point do you feel like you came into your own power as a performer?

Leather:  I really think that happened probably around The Voice of the Cult. I can remember after the intensity of doing it, I began giving Chester (David Chastain) more lyrics. But I seem to remember around The Voice of the Cult going, “Wow, I can really do this.” And then, of course, for the solo record (Shock Waves), which wasn’t even my idea, I wrote most of that stuff.

I should say that it wasn’t really a lack of confidence. My thing is that the ideas that I have in my head, I don’t translate them well. (laughs) It’s really funny … Sledge always tells me it sounds really poppy. So, it’s just always been that people seem to translate it for me better, and I’m okay with that. Unfortunately, that was about the time we really stopped working, Chastain and I. What, there had been six albums? I had been on the road so much that I can remember going, “Wow, I can really, really do this.” And then we just stopped.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Music is such a tumultuous calling. What is the secret of the two of you managing, as you say, to “stay close, stay alive, and stay metal”?

Sledge:  I don’t want to sound tacky, but it’s in the blood. I don’t know that there is any other secret than that. It has always been there. We have metal in the blood, and we’re bonded by that.

Robin:  Leather, during the time you were on hiatus, how did you feed your inner metal beast? I would think that, once metal is in someone’s blood, they could never truly stop, even if they weren’t on the public stage.

Leather:  God, that’s such a great question! But I did … I did just stop. I would always listen to everything that I had done from Rude Girl to Chastain to Malibu Barbi. I would just kind of listen to it and study it to see, in my mind, what went wrong or what didn’t work. I actually never really STOPPED. I mean I obviously listened to every album by Dio, Sabbath, Queensrÿche and others. I don’t know, I sort of have that personality where, when I make a decision that I’m done with something, I am really done.

But, as we were discussing before, I really got into pitbulls, and that kind of took it for a moment. My father … God bless his soul, who passed away three years ago now … always used to say to me, “You aren’t done! You need to sing a country western song.” (laughs) He was so cute. But I really did; I think I just went away. It didn’t work out. I guess I’m strange in that way. Like I said, I always listened and studied -- I always studied what I did and why I did it, so maybe that is how I didn’t let it go.

Robin:  Here is a randomly stupid question based on our mutual love of pitbulls. If a pitbull were a member of a band, what position would it be in?

Leather:  Oh my God, they’d be a singer or a bass player. C’mon, yeah! They would hold it together; they would be the meat and potatoes. Yup, a bass player or singer.

Robin:  Excellent!

Leather:  Ooops, Sledge will kill me. Or a drummer! (all laugh)

Robin:  Pffttt, I’m not buying your belated postscript.

Leather:  That’s right. No, no, they would hold the band together in a truly massive kind of way.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Sledge, it seems like a major love of yours is VIDEO GAMES. If you were going to do savage drumming for a video game, which one would you pick?

Sledge:  Argh, really?! This question could take us a while, because I’ve got LOTS to say about video games. First, I should tell you that somehow fate brought me to Sony PlayStation. There is a convention here called E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo), and it’s a big video game expo. When PlayStation was launched, they were looking for girl drummers to demo the product, and built this huge dome inside the convention center with 360-degree walls covered with videos of the video game music.

Myself and the other drummer were just to play along, doing 15-minute solos along with the video games. Oh, it was so COOL. My God, it was so cool!!! So I got to play along with a lot of them, and I was actually in a band called WeaponsVan that only did songs based on video games, like Gears of War and my very favorite video game which is called Medal of Honor. Now it’s called Call of Duty, but it started out as Medal of Honor.

That would have to be the one! I’ve always been a fan of Medal of Honor (now, Call of Duty) … or Modern Warfare 3 sometimes they call it, or 2 or 1. Yeah, that would be the one. I like that whole scenario: the whole first-person shooter thing and the whole aggressive, go out there and get ‘em thing. You hear those machine guns, and c’mon man, they’re DRUMS -- they’re bass drums, they’re snare drums! You know?

Robin:  Leather, when you’re not lighting up the stage and recording studio with your dose of kerosene and gravel, what do you like doing?

Leather:  I like to be alone, I love nature, and I go out running. I have a brand new Camaro, and I like to go out speeding. I really like being alone and just thinking and trying to center. And nature, I am just a nature hog! That’s what I like to do; I need to be in nature.

Robin:  Reading your Facebook posts from earlier this year, there was this cryptic announcement that Sledge Leather would have special guest musicians, then you announced a few weeks later how thrilled you were to have two of Dio’s former bandmates on the entire album. How did you swing that?

Leather:  Can you imagine that?! It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Sledge lives in LA, and she had run into Jimmy Bain a lot. You know, LA is a small place, and metal people know each other. She kept running into him and talking to him about this record that we were going to do. I guess Jimmy Bain remembered me from probably floating around backstage, or he may have remembered me from Chastain. He kind of really wasn’t doing anything, so she held him to that. Sledge got his phone number and stayed in touch with him.

The Scott Warren thing came about through a friend of Sledge’s named Keith Marks, who is the Styx production manager and is someone whom Sledge has known for a long time. He has really been a mentor of ours, and we sit down and have really life-lesson conversations with him because Styx has been doing this for a hundred years professionally. We sat down with him and were trying to figure out a strategy ... I should say, he and Sledge were trying to figure out a strategy. (Again, sometimes I go really overboard, but Dio meant so much to me.) So Keith just said, “Maybe you should call up Scott Warren. I don’t think he is doing anything right now.”

Sledge took his number, we called Scott, and he was in! I mean, he heard the stuff, and he was in. It was just OVERWHELMING. Even looking at it, we just played a show with Scott down in LA and I look over to him … I think it’s just about good music. It was the right time and the right place. But it was extremely fulfilling for Sledge and I, and it helped the creativity to flow. You know, the better the people are that you work with, the better you become. What a blessing; it was overwhelming!

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Sledge, is it correct that you do some of the piano work on Imagine Me Alive?

Sledge:  I do. I play on the interstitial called “Torch,” which comes right after the first song, “Imagine Me Alive.” I play the piano there, and I also play on “One Glimpse,” which is a song I wrote lots of years ago with Leather in mind to sing it. Yeah, that’s me playing.

Robin:  When did you decide to start studying the piano? Did you have to adjust your touch to avoid banging on the keys?

Sledge:  When I got out of Musicians Institute, a couple of friends and I -- actually, the bass player from Malibu Barbi -- came down here [to Los Angeles], and we subletted a storefront that had a piano in it. I didn’t have my drums set up there, and I had just gotten out of school and was playing with Warbride (with Lori Linstruth, a GREAT guitar player). We rehearsed a couple times a week, but not enough, so there was this piano.

After being trained to learn, which is what Musicians Institute did for me at the time, I applied everything I learned there to learning the piano. And it’s something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. One thing my original dad didn’t like really was music, and he didn’t want us being musicians. So we had a piano in the house until I was about five, and then he sold it. I was kind of sad about that. This was kind of an opportunity, so I started playing. After the experience I had with all the bands, instead of learning chords or scales officially, I started writing songs.

No, I didn’t have to adjust to avoid hitting the keys hard. You know, drumming is a multitude of touches. You’ve got to have a soft touch to do what they call “ghost notes,” and to play complicated rhythms, you’ve got to have dynamics. So I applied that same thing to the piano, and that’s how it happened … it was just completely organic. I’m kind of ashamed to say it, because I believe in lessons, but I’ve never taken a lesson.

Robin:  Are there plans afoot to create an official music video? There is some live concert footage on YouTube, but the quality is rather hit-or-miss.

Leather:  Robin, we’re talking about it, but we are doing all of this ourselves. Of course, it’s on the itinerary, and I hope that it happens soon. We are just kind of going day-by-day. I must say that our priority right now is to get on the road, because we just want to tour, tour, tour, tour! But yeah, it’s coming.

Robin:  If you could pick any track as your first single and music video, which would you choose?

Leather:  Hmmm, for me, it would probably be “Her Father’s Daughter” or “A Taste of Night” … probably, “Her Father’s Daughter” because it’s one of my favorite songs. But I think you have to go by the response by people. The response really has been to the title track, “Imagine Me Alive,” so I don’t know. (laughs) Probably, ALL of them.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  (laughs) It will just be one loooong video!

Leather:  Yeah, I’m not sure, but I think we would go by what the people were responding to the best. Right now, it seems to be IMA.

Robin:  I know that this question is premature because Imagine Me Alive has not had its worldwide release yet, but can we expect a second Sledge Leather album?

Leather:  Oh yeah! It’s basically written. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! Again, Sledge is a MANIAC with music. She has a really distinct idea in her head about what she wants to do with my voice, and she has always just loved what I do, so we’re going to try some different stuff. But absolutely, yes. If nothing else happens, we can keep making music because you can do that now without a label. Yeah, we’re going to keep going!

Robin:  Looking back over the trends of hard rock and heavy metal over the past 20 years, what do you think the best and worst developments have been?

Leather:  I think it’s a Catch-22. The best development is that anybody can do it. You don’t need labels … everybody can get out there, and you can hear all the talent. And then, it is also the downside. How do you rise above all these people? What do you do to make your talent a step above? To me, it’s a Catch-22 that I talk about all the time. I can remember being on the road back in the day, and there was soooo much talent. But nobody knew about it because they couldn’t make records. And now you can. So here I am. What do I do to become leader of the pack and get more people to pay attention? I think it’s a real bitter-sweet thing.

Sledge:  Yup. That and the effects have gotten better to express how we want you to hear it. Especially the recording for the kick drum sounds. Yeahhhhhhhhh!

Robin:  Our time together has all too quickly run out. What would you like to tell your fans, addressing them directly?

Sledge:  Wow, I APPRECIATE you. I know what you’re doing, and I know what’s going on out there. We can have some fun with all this! So, stick with us, stay in touch, and let’s METAL UP and have a good time!!!

Leather:  Thank you for sticking by me and supporting me and hanging in there while I was gone … God, the enthusiasm and welcome back! We won’t let any of you down. We’re coming, we’re coming, we’re coming to every town and to every country. Just a big “thank you!” I will not disappoint.

Sledge Leather

Robin:  Thank you so much for talking with Sonic Cathedral today!

Leather:  Thank you for having me, Robin!

Sledge:  Thank you, Robin!

Sledge Leather

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