The dictionary definition of “apocalypse” is as follows: “The complete destruction of the world.” The same dictionary describes “revue” as: “A light theatrical entertainment consisting of a series of short sketches, songs and dances.” Thus, the name of the band sandwiches the blues in between something very heavy and something rather light.
On face value, the above would seem a rather curious grouping until one delves into the makeup of the band. Apocalypse Blues Revue was co-founded by Godsmack drummer Shannon Larkin and guitarist Tony Rombola—thus, the heavy. For the light, lead vocalist, Ray “Rafer John” Cerbone’s background was primarily as an acoustic singer/songwriter. The hybrid in the group is bassist Brian Carpenter, whose roots are in punk rock (hey, not everything fits into nice, neat categories).
Their self-titled debut will no doubt attract the curious who are familiar with Larkin and Rombola from Godsmack, but make no mistake—this is no vanity side project. Those who love 60’s influenced blues-rock (think Cream, the Doors and Robin Trower) will dig the album for its songwriting chops and guitar fireworks. As a bonus, Cerbone’s vocals sound so much like Jim Morrison that it’s spooky—as if the late Doors frontman has been mystically resurrected.
In speaking with Larkin, he’s well aware of the comparison. “When I met Ray, I didn’t even know he sang, and I ended up forging a friendship, going to his house and saw an acoustic guitar and said, “Yeah, do you play?” He told me he played a little bit, so he picked it up, started singing, and I immediately heard Morrison. When it came time to look for a singer, I told Tony, “Man, this dude, he’s never been in a band or anything. He’s an older guy, but God, his voice has the tone of Jim Morrison.”
“Tony is like, ‘Really? Call him up.’ That’s how it happened, all because of Jim. You’re right, it is eerie. Sometimes certain words he’ll sing, I look up, like when we did the record in the studio. I’d look up at him like, ‘Wow, this dude is straight up, like reincarnated Jim standing in front of me at the mic.’ It’s crazy.”
Larkin is a journalist’s dream in that he loves to chat, and with one question he could probably develop a 20-minute answer if time permitted. It quickly becomes apparent that his roots in the blues and blues-rock go deep. “The Apocalypse isn’t really that big of a departure in rock and roll; like classic rock, hard rock, heavy rock. If you listen to bands like…I just went and saw AC/DC the other night, and they broke out some of their older stuff, because Axl was singing or whatever. Man, I forgot how bluesy they were. Some of the stuff that we’ve been writing, newer stuff, sounds like old AC/DC.”
One of the standout songs on the album is Whiskey in My Coffee, which has a very rockabilly feel to it. This may sound strange coming from one of the anchors of Godsmack, but “Tony and I both worship at the altar of Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats,” says Larkin. “What the Cats did is kind of what we’re trying to do. Rockabilly started in the late 50’s with dudes like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and the early Elvis stuff. Then it kind of went away. It never really got any airplay until the Stray Cats reintroduced this style of music, this style of rock and roll to the world. Of course it was a huge success, but what it did was reintroduce younger folks, that are in the music, it reintroduced them to this brilliant style of music and musicianship. The Cats were, and still are to this day, one of my favorite bands and a huge influence.”
“We feel that doing this kind of blues and mixing it…our kind of style of blues, mixing the blues with everything that we grew up with, from classic rock to hard rock, maybe can reintroduce this style of music to modern airwaves. If we could turn on…we feel like since we’re in Godsmack, we have this big fanbase in that band. It’s a pretty successful metal, hard rock band, and a lot of our fans are much younger than us. Perhaps they haven’t been exposed to Stevie Ray Vaughan, or even the early Zeppelin blues stuff or any of the old-school guys like the three Kings [Albert, Freddie and BB], but if we can help open up their minds to experiencing this new style of music like the Stray Cats did with rockabilly back in the early 80s, then we feel like we’re doing something positive instead of flogging the old, same dead horse.”
Not only does Shannon know his blues legends, he also keeps up with the current scene. The conversation turns to guitarist Joe Bonamassa, who is widely acknowledged as the modern blues-rock master. “Joe’s the flag bearer for this. He’s the guy that’s out there right now doing exactly what I said that we aspire to do and what the Stray Cats did. He’s making people that are unaware of this style of the blues and he’s introducing it to them by adding his rock thing, and therefore the kids that are listening to, I don’t know, Papa Roach, maybe, or Godsmack, whatever, maybe it’s rock enough that they’ll go, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ then they’ll delve back into, ‘Oh, where did this come from?’ Then boom.”
“Like I said, Led Zeppelin, man, just the first two Zeppelin records, that’s to me…that was the blues to us. Tony likes to say we’re third generation dudes because Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Keith and Brian and Ronnie Wood from the Stones; all those dudes, the Beatles; George Harrison and John Lennon, they were the second generation. It all comes back to the Delta guys in America that were doing it, they were the first generation, but never had any kind of commercial success. Then these English guys, as well as our own Jimi Hendrix, they took this style and rocked it up. Dudes like Tony and I growing up, when we were 12, 13 years old and heard Led Zeppelin playing You Shook Me or Dazed and Confused. That was our blues. That was our fun house.”
The difference between playing in a top-tier hard rock band that plays festivals and arenas and an unknown blues group just starting out couldn’t be more dramatic. It’s not just the genre of the music itself, it’s all the trappings that go with rock stardom (or lack thereof). “We have no problems even with playing in a rock bar or whatever, because Tony and I are in Godsmack, so we might be able to draw some of our fans out at least to check out the blues thing. But jeez, we really want to play every night and we’re not looking at this thing like some side project; we’re looking at it like we’re in two bands, and by the grace of God or whatever you believe in, we’ve been blessed to have plenty of time, and we’ve afforded to be able to take breaks in Godsmack in which we can do side things and experiment with other music. Sully, our singer, has a record coming out next month. It’s his second solo record. We have the luxury of being able to do two bands and all we really know that we need to do in the blues is just get out there and play in front of people.”
“After being in a big machine like Godsmack in which everything is done and we don’t have to worry about finding gigs, it’s definitely been a refreshing slap in the face, besides even the fact that we usually have 30 road crew dudes and 6 tour buses and four tractor trailers, and now we’re going out in a van, oh, and by the way, the band isn’t getting paid. Even in a van tour, for us to make X amount a night and then to get out there for X amount of shows in, say, X amount of time, we have to have a bottom line that we get paid a night, whether it’s 500 bucks or whatever.”
“With that said, we can take hits on certain shows where we’ve got to play for whatever, 300 hundred bucks, and then get to the next town. All we need is somebody that can book us in between and fill in the gaps. Right now, we’re at the point where…shit! We’re old dudes! We’re in our 50’s, so we can’t do the thing like we did in our 20’s, where the band would roll into town, we’d be playing on stage that night, and ask if anybody has a place we can crash. We would go and crash at people’s…at fan’s houses or whatever, to get to the next gig.”
“When I play in Godsmack, it’s very, very physical and I’m pushing and every note I hit is hit with strength. We’re an intense rock band, so it’s like I’m pushing through the whole set. There’s never a break in Godsmack. In the blues, man, I can shut my eyes and kick back and just play the drums from my heart with feeling and I’m not crushing my body or my mind. In my mind, in Godsmack, I’m out to punish and it’s metal and rock and it’s angry and aggressive. As I punish with my mind, I’m punishing my body and therefore we can play three nights in a row, and then we get a night off ‘Smack, but with the blues and the Apocalypse, we’ll play seven nights a week, we don’t care. It can be something that our bodies will withstand it because it’s not as physically demanding as metal and rock.”
Which brings everything back full circle. It’s the comparison between riding a comfy tour bus with every need catered to, and stuffing yourself into a crowded van with your bandmates and music gear. Eating backstage catered meals versus fast food on the road. Larkin knows both, and he doesn’t shy away from the blues lifestyle.
“It pours out from inside you. It’s about higher powers and numbers, man. There’s something about it that separates it from ordinary. You can be blues-rock, you can be jazzy-blues, like Robben Ford. There’s all the different titles people can give it, but really you can’t fake it and it has to come oozing out of you from a spot like Janis Joplin had insider her. There has to be something you live through, some kind of pain. That’s why Walter Trout’s record is so great. His new one. He almost died, he had…I forget which disease or whatever, a horrible disease, and he’s literally on his deathbed. He came through it, and then his new record came out and it’s like he survived through that! It was so real that there’s no way of faking it. That’s the blues, man…and that’s where we are with this band. ”