He is standing on the edge of a stage, long dark hair swirling around him as he rips his guitar strings into a pathological scream for mercy. Being the latest in a respected line of guitar players that Ozzy Osbourne has discovered and bred in his fertile solo band, Gus G is playing his heart out. But what some fans don’t realize is that Gus is not a virgin ingénue. He has been playing guitar since a little kid and in more bands – at one time – than most musicians play with in their entire careers. And now one of those bands is starting to cause a ripple outside of their native Greece with the release of Few Against Many.
During a recent break and before Firewind hits the American shores on a just announced tour with Turisas and Stolen Babies, Gus called in to talk about growing up in Greece, Firewind’s latest CD, and what it’s like trying to keep up with Ozzy on stage. What was it like growing up in Greece?
It’s a beautiful country. The weather is always nice here, people are always out having a good time – drinking coffee or hanging out or whatever. The nightlife and the whole club scene is pretty big here. People love to go out any day of the week, more or less. But that’s probably why there wasn’t a lot of hard working rock bands cause everybody was too busy having a good time (laughs) But I guess I was quite different from other kids my age when I was growing up because I was practicing a lot and basically spent all my teenager years locked up in my bedroom just practicing guitar when everybody else was just having a good time, you know. But I had a goal when I was very young and that goal was to be in a band someday and tour the world and make music. So I knew what I wanted from a very young age.
How young are we talking about?
I started playing guitar when I was ten, so I had this in my mind when I was very young but from the moment I got my first electric guitar when I was fourteen, that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do. So we’re talking thirteen/fourteen, around that time.
How did you discover rock & roll?
It started actually from my dad. He had a couple of rock albums at home, a couple of vinyls, like Hotel California by the Eagles, he had Frampton Comes Alive. Actually, when I heard him play guitar, Peter Frampton did the talk box and all that stuff, I was really blown away. That’s when I asked my dad to buy me a guitar and start lessons because I wanted to do that as well. I wanted to know how to be able to do that. So that was it really, that’s how it got started, yeah. When you started playing, did you put on an album and try to learn that way or did you take lessons?
Yeah, I took formal lessons. I went to a conservatory for a few years. To be honest with you, the first four years of me playing guitar wasn’t all that exciting because my dad bought me like a classical guitar. He didn’t know I wanted to play electric or he thought I had to start with classical so I went into this kind of music school of the neighborhood, so to speak. It was one teacher and she was a very nice lady and she could play a little bit of piano and a little bit of guitar, little bit of accordion and she would teach the kids. But the first four years were like nothing really so spectacular and I only learned how to play a few chords. Then finally I kept telling my dad I want to play electric guitar. I started getting into hard rock bands and stuff like that and then he realized I had to move away from that. Then I actually went into a proper conservatory here in town, in Thessaloniki, where I am from. Then I started taking like Theory lessons and Ear Training. I had a good teacher. I basically started learning a lot more things on the guitar, like scales and stuff like that.
When did you start your first band?
Well, it was actually a cover band. No actually, I have to go back a bit. It was, if you can call it a band, me and my classmates when I was in junior high school. We’d get together and try to just play Metallica songs or Nirvana songs or something. But we didn’t have a drummer so somebody would just bang on the pillows or something (laughs). So that was not a real band but my first real band was a covers band. I think that was like a bit later when I was sixteen or something. And that’s when I started to do my first gigs around town and playing some clubs. It was a good experience. You came over to America to go to school at the Berklee College Of Music.
Well, after I finished high school, or right before I finished high school, I had an audition for some teachers at Berklee and they gave me like some sort of scholarship to attend this five week summer program. I think it was like 1997. I went to Boston and while I was there I auditioned again and I got another scholarship to go back and study full-time after I had graduated from high school. And that’s what I did. I came back to Greece and finished, I graduated, and then I went back to Boston. But only this time I actually didn’t study full time. I dropped out after two weeks (laughs).
That’s not good
No, but I don’t regret it because I realized pretty quickly that it was not really what I wanted to do. At that point I had already had formal training for four or five years and I just felt like I was ready to start a band. And I needed a different kind of experience and going to school was not that. I needed to learn how to write songs and how to play with other people, get into a studio and record something and actually go out there and do it. You have been playing in a lot of different bands but you’ve now turned your focus on Firewind. What made this band so special that you gave up the other bands, aside from the Ozzy gig?
When I started out I was playing in different bands, like you said, because originally none of them were signed. And I thought, well, I’ll keep doing this until somebody gets signed and hopefully I will have a chance to make a record and get some gigs. A couple years later out of all the bands I was in, everybody got signed and everybody was getting record deal offers so I kind of kept going with it until I couldn’t. And the moment that I couldn’t I had to decide who to focus on and that was always Firewind. I guess because it was kind of more like my baby and things were kind of based around me and it had a lot more guitar stuff in there than the other bands. Somehow I just kept on with that and it’s not been an easy ride. We’ve gone through a lot of shit over the years (laughs).
And Firewind is not a new band. Few Against Many is actually your seventh album.
Seventh album and this is our tenth year
But it’s doing really good: it’s charting, you’ve had good press on it. Why do you think this was your breakthrough album and not one of the albums before it?
I think a big part of it is that this was my first album after I joined Ozzy. I played on Scream, Ozzy’s latest album, but this was the album that I followed up with after the Ozzy album. And I had done the world tour with him for two years. I think a lot more people kind of paid attention now to me and to a certain extent the band as well. I think more press took notice, because we had press before and we had a good career in Japan and Europe but not so much in America. But now America is kind of noticing a little bit more and I think that was it really. And regarding all the charting and stuff, Firewind charted in like five European countries and we even went to number one in Greece. I think it’s just the result of putting quality albums out there every two years and keep touring them, you know.
And it finally happened
Yeah at some point you create a fan base and you kind of have to build it stone by stone. We’re not the kind of band where everything just happened over night or we had that one hit album. Every album has just been a small step upwards. Sometimes it can be frustrating because you’re like, When? When is it finally going to happen? (laughs) But on the other hand, it’s a good thing with that to take baby steps and it actually gives you a solid career. Will you be doing another album soon?
Actually not that soon because we just released Few Against Many, our latest album that came out last May. We’re still actually touring to promote it. We just finished our European tour and we went to Asia so we still have a lot more territories to visit. We’re coming to the States next year, we’re going to Australia and we’re going to do festivals in Europe. So I think we’re going to be busy the whole of 2013 promoting it. I think the next Firewind album, it’s going to take some time till the next one comes out. Plus, like I said before, seven albums in ten years, that’s quite a lot so I would like to give this one time to really sink in with the fans. The song “Edge Of A Dream” is almost a departure for Firewind. It has a beautiful melody, it has piano and cello and it sounds very forlorn almost.
Yeah, you’re right about that
You have also reigned in the guitars and have let the melody overtake this song.
It’s a song that the melody has to reign over it and we had the guys from Apocalyptica – I don’t know if you know those guys but they’re even bigger than us in the States and they’ve been going on for a long time and they added the cello parts and stuff. It was a good collaboration with those guys. And this is a song where it’s not even a heavy metal song. It’s a different song. We thought this could actually be the song that hopefully gets us different kind of audience in there as well, cause we never done a song like that, to be honest with you, like a grand piano kind of ballad. I think it worked out fine.
Bob Katsionis and Apollo Papathanasio [keyboard player & vocalist] wrote it while we were on one of our tour breaks and Apollo and Bob kind of hung out at Bob’s apartment or something and the next day they came up and gave me like a demo of that and I thought it was a great song. Originally, to be honest with you, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to include it on the album because I wanted to make a really heavy album (laughs). And then the guys said, “Well, we’re kind of trying to make a different album so we should have a different song in there.” Then I kind of started clicking in and then I suggested we add the cellos and stuff and I added the intro guitar melodies and all that stuff. How long did it take you to put this album together?
The previous album came out in 2010 and this one came out in 2012 so it might seem we put it together pretty quickly. But to be honest with you, I did not plan to make this album that quick. I was just out on tour with Ozzy and I was just jamming a lot on guitar on the off days. I always have a guitar with me in the hotel so on one of the tour breaks I had like twenty riffs in my head. So I said I would just do some demos in my home studio so I don’t forget them. Then I sent it to the guys and from there it didn’t really take too long to put it together.
Do the riffs just come to you while you’re noodling around on the guitar like that?
Usually. Once I start getting the first couple of riffs, I guess I go into this writing mode and then it just all comes out like almost at once. I could have two or three weeks of just writing stuff every day and then it’ll be nothing for a while again (laughs). So I guess I just get those days of pure inspiration and just pick up the guitar and stuff comes out and then I’ll do demos and then I’ll get as much as I can on there and then it’s gone for a while. Whatever I record I just keep working on it and try to make it better.
Do you ever worry when you’re in a lull that nothing else will come?
I do get that feeling sometimes that I’ll get a writer’s block and never be able to write anything again but sometimes you have to kind of push yourself and even start to jam and try to record the silly idea that you think might not even work. But you might need to push yourself a little bit to get it out and then somehow it just works again (laughs). Or sometimes I get inspiration from the other guys as well. They’ll send me like a demo and I’ll really like an idea and then I’ll just help them to finish the song or that will inspire me to write something else. We feed off each other that way. Do you only write on guitar?
Mainly on guitar
What is your practice regime like?
When I’m at home, like right now on a tour break, I don’t really practice that much but when I’m on tour I play at least two hours before the gig just to warm up and of course the gig is another hour and a half. So yeah, I’ll do like three or four hours every day. You have your own signature guitar. How much are you involved in the actual creating of this guitar? I’m very hands on with all my signature products because I also have my own guitars, my own pickups and recently I got my own amp so I’m very hands on with everything. I work closely with these companies. In the case of the guitar with ESP, I choose everything basically, all the specs from what wood we’re going to use, what kind of frets, what kind of inlay fretwork it’s going to have, what color, what pickups, everything, you know. Obviously the guys there in the company help me and build me prototypes and stuff like that. But mainly the ideas will come from me.
Boring question of the night: How did you get involved with Ozzy?
(laughs) It’s not boring at all. I mean, I’ve answered that a ton of times but it’s never boring. Actually it’s a crazy story because they found me somehow. I didn’t know their camp or anything but I guess they were looking for a guitar player and somehow my name was on their short list of younger guitar players out there. So one night I just got an email from a guy that works in the office, in the management, and they basically asked me if I wanted to go down and audition for them, for Ozzy. That’s how crazy and simple it was.
Were you in Greece?
Yes, I was in Greece at the time. I learned a bunch of songs and flew to LA a few weeks later. I did the audition and the rest is history. It went really well and I got the gig.
Brad Gillis of Night Ranger told us a funny story about his first gig with Ozzy and how he hit a wrong note and Ozzy turned around and looked at him and then Sharon came up and told him he did great but don’t ever do that again. Anything similar happen to you?
Oh nothing like that, I had the exact opposite happen. You also have to consider that was 1982 when Brad was there and things have changed since then. Things were more intense then. Ozzy was also doing a lot of drugs and alcohol but you know what the first thing he told me when I went there and landed in LA? He called me in the hotel and he said, “Don’t be stressed about the audition tomorrow and if you fuck up or if you play some wrong notes, don’t worry about it. It’s rock & roll. I like your playing and hopefully it’ll work out.” So he has never ever given me shit about missing notes or anything.
Now there’s nights where I felt like I hadn’t played that great and we walk offstage and he’s like, “Dude, you did great,” and I’m like “What do you mean? It sucked tonight for me.” But he’s super cool and he always says you leave the gig back on stage, you leave it on stage, you don’t talk about it afterwards. And he’s very right about that. I mean, what’s the point in getting off stage and arguing about who fucked up where? It’s done, the gig is done, you have to do the next one.
Do you think that is the most important thing that you’ve learned from playing with Ozzy? To let it go?
Yeah, yeah, that is one of the things I’ve learned from him. Just being with him and how he does things is just one big learning experience. It’s a big school for me. It’s different doing this gig at such a level. Like you said, one of the things I learned is to leave the gig on stage. When we were rehearsing before my first gig we rehearsed for a couple of weeks and he said, “Well, tomorrow’s the gig, that’s the real rehearsal.” (laughs). I was like, what do you mean? “It doesn’t matter. You can rehearse for months and months and you’re still going to go up on stage and you’re still going to fuck up something. It doesn’t matter.” Who has been your biggest influence as a guitar player and why that particular person? I don’t have one biggest, I actually have quite a few guitar heroes of mine. If you ask any guitar player they’ll mention at least four or five dudes. But I’ll just name you some of the guys that I really look up to when I was growing up as a kid and still do. One of them is Tony Iommi from Sabbath, Rudolf Schenker from the Scorpions; guys like Gary Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Schenker, Uli Jon Roth, those guys.
You’re off right now, you’re back home. What do you do every day?
Well, I’m at home with my wife and I’m just enjoying and relaxing a little bit. Obviously, I still do a lot of the day-to-day business together with our manager and so it’s still a lot of work every day, even though I do it from my computer at home. So I’m basically putting all the plans together for next year with what we’re going to do. But it’s nice to be home for a while because I’ve been on the road for a very long time now. We just got back two weeks ago from Europe so it’s good to be home now.
I saw you in Jacksonville and Houston last year when I was covering Slash’s shows.
Yeah, that was a great tour. When we got done that’s when we went to South America, then we did European festivals and when Ozzy’s tour was done, I went out with Firewind. So it’s been like a nonstop rollercoaster (laughs)
I don’t know where Ozzy gets all his energy from. He just jumps and runs all over the place.
Yeah, I know, he still has a kid’s energy. It’s insane. At some point on that tour we were even doing like two and a half hour shows. I had never done that at that point and he even wore me out. I was like, fuck, I’m thirty, how does he do it and he’s sixty-two? (laughs) So what do you have coming up for the rest of the year?
This year is going to end with four shows in Greece with Firewind. Like I said, Firewind is ten years old this year so we’re celebrating that. We’re going to do four special shows in intimate venues, two shows in our hometown here and two shows in Athens, and we’re going to be playing a lot of songs that we’ve never played before and we’re going to do different setlists every night. So it’s going to be like a very nice way to end the year. Then we start in February in the US and we’re going to be doing a pretty long North American tour. We’re going to be there for five or six weeks, then we’re going to Australia in April and then straight after that we’re going to summer festivals in Europe. It’s going to be a busy year. We’re going to keep trying to promote this album and not hurry doing the next one, not just yet.
DJ Bonebrake pounded the skins in the seminal LA punk band X. Now he puts his signature on the Stripminers new release and finds time while cleaning out his garage to talk with MY ROOTS about his career in music.