80’s metal is big business these days. There are cruises and festivals devoted to the genre that regularly cruise the oceans and tour the country. There are even parallel competing bands, each with a few original members, fighting legal battles for the right to use the same name (Ratt, Great White, L.A. Guns and Queensryche come to mind).
The downside is that many of these bands resemble sports franchises—the uniform stays the same, but the players are constantly changing. Even worse, the albums they put out sound like the same stuff they’ve been releasing since 1989, with only the song titles changed. Ditto for the visuals…do we really need to see men in their late 50’s with dyed jet black hair wearing way-too-tight clothing?
Derek Davis is one of those “men of a certain age,” but unlike many of his peers he’s chosen to walk a different path. Davis was (and still is) the frontman of Babylon A.D., a hard rock band that had a monster debut album in 1989, producing the hit singles Bang Go the Bells and Hammer Swings Down. While Babylon A.D. continues to record and perform, Davis concurrently has a solo career and had just recently released Revolutionary Soul, which is an album inspired by Davis’ love of R&B and funk music.
On the album, Davis not only wrote the majority of the songs, he also played all the instruments, handled all the vocals and engineered and produced the record. That’s pretty impressive, considering that many people struggle just to master one instrument. Davis says “I wanted to try something different. I was like…half the friends I know are all musicians, and really good ones too. But I thought, ‘You know what, man? I can play everything. I’m just gonna do it all myself.’ That way, I don’t have to call people up and bring them over and all that other kind of stuff. So I just did everything myself.”
The inspiration for what would become Revolutionary Soul run deep in the roots of Davis’ life. “I really grew up, really, on soul music. You know? James Brown, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, all that kind of stuff. Then as I started getting older, in high school and stuff, I started playing in bands. Well, nobody was playing that kind of music. Everybody’s playing Zeppelin and Skynyrd and shit like that. So I had to switch over to that, of course, and start singing hard rock–which I love, but I always wanted to do this, man.”
“This is what’s so cool about it. I’ve always wanted to make kind of a semi-soul record. You know what I mean? Something just a little bit different than hard rock. So I just…a couple years ago, I just started writing these kinds of chord structures that had that sound of the soulful type, the minor chords and things like that. I just evolved. But like you said, as you get older… I don’t listen to ’80s stuff anymore. I don’t. I listen to…actually I listen to mostly old stuff, or I listen to cool new stuff. You know what I mean? Whatever’s out there that’s really super cool, that has a little bit of soul to it. Or if a new rock band comes along, I listen to them. But it doesn’t seem like too many new bands really…you know, they don’t really do anything for me, maybe because I’ve heard every single riff in the world, it seems like by now.”
Many times when a musician records an album where they handle all the instrumentation, it is released as a stand-alone piece of work for fans to enjoy, with no intention of the songs ever being played live. However, such is not the case with Revolutionary Soul. “You got to see my new band! My band is killer, man. I got these guys…all of them are out of Oakland, and these guys are heavy cats, man. They played with a lot of big R&B bands and soul bands and stuff for years. When we play, even when we practice, it’s like, if we just learn a song or one of my songs or whatever, it’s like first or second time, and it’s ‘Okay. Never need to play that song except for live again.’ You know what I mean? They’re that tight. We’re called the Revolutionary Souls. We’re gonna do a live album, just because they’re that good. We can just pop live albums out probably every six months if we want to.”
Although Davis is deep into the music on Revolutionary Soul, he’s still active with Babylon A.D.
“Well, the original, original member, John Matthews, just jumped back in the band because we’re making a brand-new album, and he wrote half the songs with me. So Danny [de La Rosa] said, ‘Well, you know, if John’s writing most of the songs with you guys, then I’m gonna bow out,’ because he’s gonna do a new solo album himself. So Dan left the band. It doesn’t mean he’s out of the band, it just means for this album anyways, for this new album that we’re putting out in another six months. October, I think, it is. It’s called Revelation Highway. So we’re gonna put that out. But yeah, so I’m working on both things at the same time. But I got to tell you, man. When you hear… I’ll send you the new Babylon A.D. stuff as soon as we get finished with it. I’m recording right now. I think you’re gonna be surprised, man, because we’re not doing the same old, big, giant, you know, Bang Go The Bells, you know, or shit like that. This stuff’s a lot more melodic. It’s a lot different because, just probably like with another person instead of Danny all the time. I think you’d like it because it’s not that big-hair sound, you know what I mean? You got lead guitar and shit like that, but it’s just not that cheesy kind of stuff.”
The changes in the music industry in the 28 years since Babylon A.D. was signed to Arista Records are immense. Back then there was no internet or cellphones, no iTunes or YouTube, so if you weren’t signed to a major label your music didn’t get heard, except perhaps by fans trading cassette tapes. Home recording was in its infancy, so recording an album meant shelling out big bucks in a professional studio with an engineer. The upside is that today, anyone can record their music and put it out for the world to hear. The downside is that unless you are one of the rare ones that have a major-label contract, you’re going to be self-financed.
Davis talks about the realities of today’s music business. “You know, I still get my ASCAP checks and all that kind of stuff. But I’d really say I only make about a quarter of the money that I live on off of music, and the rest of it is that I have a commercial painting company, and I’ve got guys out there working right now. So it affords me the time to be in the recording studio. All I got to do is basically… I have the jobs for my company. I get the jobs and then send my guys out and do the shit. Then about twice a week, I go check on them. So it’s kind of cool. I’m mostly like a full-time musician, but making a lot more money running my commercial painting business. That’s where the money’s coming in. If I’m just gonna do the musician thing, you know, I’d be living in a crappy fucking apartment with a beat-up car, but maybe I’d be happy. I don’t know. But I kind of think I’d rather live in a nice four-bedroom house with a swimming pool.”
“You know, it’s kind of weird. It’s like it’s almost better than it was 20 years ago, whenever the hell it was, just because it’s more fulfilling just to be able to…especially be able to create and write your own stuff and not have an A&R guy or somebody going, ‘Well, you should change this chord, or maybe you should work on these two lyric lines in this one song.’ You’re like, ‘What the fuck? What? These lyric lines are fine. Let me play it for 10 people. Let me see. Does anybody hear anything wrong with these lyric lines? No, they sound good to me.’ A&R guy’s telling you, ‘No, I think they should be a little bit more this or that.’ You know? You’re like, ‘Geez, man. Are you just looking for your job…make it seem like you have…like you’re doing something for your job?’ You know what I mean? So in a way, it’s a lot more self-fulfilling because you basically get to say what you want instead of somebody else telling you what they think you should say.”
Davis sums up his philosophy on music, a viewpoint which is relevant to both his current work with Babylon A.D. and his solo projects. “Man, just keep on plugging and doing whatever you want to do. Fuck trying to be the same thing over and over and over again. You know?”