Craig Blackwell played guitar, bass, and keys on Todd La Torre’s first solo album, Rejoice in the Suffering. He also co-composed the record. In this interview, we talk about his musical history, his work on Rejoice in the Suffering, and his feelings about KISS’ “Mr. Blackwell.”
William: Is this your first interview?
William: Great. We’re making journalistic history! How did you get into playing guitar?
Craig: That started back when I was about seven years old. I lived with my mother, mainly. Whenever she would drive me back and forth to school, we’d always listen to music. She was real big into Neil Diamond and some other artists. I was always listening to music. Well, one day she picked me up from school and on the way home she had a catalog in the car. I was just flipping through the pages and I stumbled across an acoustic guitar in the music section. I went “Ah, Mom! Look at that!” She went, “Wow! Do you like that?” I go, “I’d love to have one of those,” and she whipped the fastest U turn I’ve ever seen and we went down to the nearest music store and she bought me a guitar. There was a TV show at the time on WEDU here, channel three, and there was a guy every Saturday morning that would tune the guitar with you and then teach you chords on TV. That’s where it all started.
William: I used to play a good bit, and my mom bought me my first guitar, too.
Craig: Moms are always our biggest fans.
William: They sure are. Thanks goodness for moms!
You and Todd have known each other since you were teenagers. How did y’all meet?
Craig: We went to the same high school. At the time, I had a band in school. I had a drummer, bass player, another guitar player, and we were kind of rotating singers because singers are hard to find in school. Our drummer’s father didn’t want him playing in the band anymore. One of our mutual friends, Russ, had mentioned to me, “Well, hey, I know a guy. He’s a little younger than us, but he’s a really good drummer. His name’s Todd and we can go over to his house and he would love to play in the band, I’m sure.” We talked with Todd and he said, “Yeah, come on over. I’ll play you some songs. So we went over to his house, which was right around the corner from all of our houses. He played “Modern Day Cowboy” from Tesla for me. He was about fifteen seconds into the song and I went, “Dude, you’re in. You’re in. That’s it.” That’s all I needed to hear.
Craig: So we became super-close friends and we just grew together and realized that writing and playing together was what we wanted to do. We’ve been best friends ever since.
William: When did you first hear Todd sing and what was your reaction?
Craig: Back in high school, Todd and I agreed on doing—ironically, enough—“Silent Lucidity” live at school. We did an acoustic version with some other guys. That was really, I think, the first time Todd sang live in front of hundreds of people. It was a packed house. After high school, Todd and I lived together for about three years. He had purchased a house in St. Petersburg. When I moved out from where I was, he asked me, “Hey, you want to come be my roommate? We’d have a blast.” Obviously, the music was a big thing. He had his drum kit set up in the house, and I had all my guitar stuff, so we disturbed our neighbors quite a bit. It was the loud house on the block. We lived together for a little while, and we were singing back and forth. Todd’s vocal ability definitely developed over the years. Jumping forward to Crimson Glory. That’s when he really . . . . That’s when I was like, “Wow! How did you pull that off? You just became this amazing singer overnight, almost.” He’d been working really hard on it. It just goes to show you that with drive and ability you can really take off, and that’s what happened for Todd.
William: So what did he sound like in the early, pre-Crimson Glory days?
Craig: He has a really good lower register. His voice goes lower than most people’s. I can’t even get near to that. Now, he can roll all the way up to Halford height, midnight-height screams that are just unbelievable. As far as vocal ability and what he sounded like before, it was always very pleasant. He had a really nice warm voice. I always enjoyed writing with him and writing songs with him because his delivery was always really good that way. I can sing, too. I just don’t have that warm-style voice that he does. I have more of a gritty voice. He has a very broad spectrum of sounds that he can produce with his instrument. The voice is a beautiful instrument and he knows how to use it.
William: So the high stuff kind of came later for him, then.
Craig: I believe when Crimson Glory asked him to join was when he really started working on and refining that high end and that accuracy. Those notes are not easy to hit accurately. You hear a lot of guys trying to do it, but they’re not on the note. They’re pitchy. Todd is not. He’s very on the notes. Very impressive.
William: That’s interesting because when I listened to Rejoice in the Suffering, the high stuff was there that I’m used to hearing from his work with Queensrÿche, and then he hits some of that low stuff, like “One By One,” and I’m like, “Wow! Where has that been at?”
Craig: Yeah. Well, the music that we were producing really didn’t require too much of the high, high screaming, which we like. We’ve always been Halford, Fight, Pantera, Testament, Slayer, Stryper fans. He’s always been able to do the guttural, that low growling. I can’t do it. It hurts my throat and I don’t see how he does it, but he does it. As far as the Queensrÿche gig, that’s not something they want to hear too much; that’s not their thing. He does do it live occasionally, and they don’t mind.
I tell you; it’s been an impressive view from my side watching him develop.
William: Any thoughts about touring for the album?
Craig: Right now we can’t do shows. We are talking about it. I can’t comment too much on the lineup, but we do have musicians ready to go for live shows. I’m not saying we’re definitely doing it, but we are in talks. Right now, everything’s so uncertain with the virus that it’s hard to really say, “Yeah, we’re gonna go do this and that and that.” I want people to know that we are thinking about it. We get asked that question a lot. “Are you guys ever gonna play live?” The answer is, we want to. It’s just a matter of Todd’s availability because Queensrÿche is his main thing. We can’t step on their schedule. But if we do have an opening where we can do live shows again and there is an opening where can get Todd and we could go do a show, we are definitely looking at that.
William: That’s good to hear. I assume and hope you guys will play Florida since you live here and I’m here myself.
Craig: That’s where we live and we’ve got some killer venues around.
William: My understanding is Blue Water Sound & Stage is your “day gig” or main thing.
Craig: It’s a live sound company. I do live sound for bands, and I also have a studio in my home that I use to record, produce, mix, and master for some labels. I’ve worked with Rat Pak on some other projects. I become really good friends, through Todd, with Joe who owns Rat Pak, so he’s throwing some stuff my way. Blue Water Sound & Stage is my main personal business.
William: It’s been popular to re-release remastered versions of albums. What does that mean to remaster something? Is that always a good thing?
Craig: That can go either way. Mastering is the most important part of a mix. So if you’ve heard a song and you listen to the song, but you’re like, “There’s just something about that song I don’t like,” that could be in the mastering. The ear is very, very sensitive. When you have bad frequencies that were missed in mastering, the song can actually annoy you subconsciously. The mastering is very crucial—same with the mixing. You gotta be very familiar with frequency cancellations, annoying frequencies to the ear. Two of the biggest ones are electric guitar and vocals.
William: Have you ever heard something that’s been remastered and thought it actually sounds worse?
Craig: Yes. Absolutely.
William: So why are records remastered? Is the sound objectively better or does it come down to differences in taste and personal preference? Are some people just trying to find an excuse to put the record out again?
Craig: That could be part of it, the excuse to put the record out again, maybe to generate sales. But I think it’s that in the past twenty-five years, the standard has changed. If you listen to an old Van Halen record like Diver Down or one of their earlier records, listen to the volume of the record. It’s very low. Let’s say you’re listening to that through your car stereo; I’d turn that up to about thirty-three, which is beyond what I would ever turn anything up to. When they remaster it, they’re remastering it probably mainly for volume, maybe to brighten it up a little bit, bring a little more low-end into it because that’s another thing with the old standards: there wasn’t a lot of low-end. They were afraid to put it in there because it distorted real easy; it would overload. Now, the standard is they realize they can add a little more low-end and they can bring the volume way up to so that when I put that remastered CD in, I’m only hitting twenty-five on the volume and it’s blaring loud on my car stereo. Perceived volume is what it’s called when you master.
William: What do you think about raising the volume? I know a lot of people prefer the older recordings because there are more peaks and valleys, a greater dynamic range, and I know if someone brings that volume of the recording up too far during mastering or remastering, you start getting clipping, which will affect the recording no matter how low you play it. And if every part of a song is as loud as all the other parts, it stops getting your attention.
I guess what I’m asking is, what do you think about increasing the volume as part of the remastering process?
Craig: You just gotta be careful with it because you’re right: it loses its peaks. Here’s a thing about mastering: when you bring the bottom of the mix up and squish it at the top of the ceiling, you’re bringing up frequencies and sounds. You can bring up weird frequencies that change the sound of the song. You’re like, “Well, I haven’t heard that in the song before. Did they add something?” Or it sounds more compressed. Sometimes you’ll get stuff that’s overly compressed and they’ve killed it. They’ve lost the dynamic. Those peaks are gone. The valleys are gone. It doesn’t sound pleasing to my ear anymore. I have heard a few albums where I’ve thought, “Yeah, they shouldn’t have touched it. They should have just left it alone.”
William: So re-mastering doesn’t just necessarily make it louder. It can actually change the song.
William: What’s an album you’d love to remaster?
Craig: Hmmm . . . . I wouldn’t change anything that I love because I love it just the way it is. That’s a hard question.
William: Does KISS’ “Mr. Blackwell” from their Music from “The Elder” album speak to you in any way?
Craig: [Laughs] You know, when I first heard that song, I was drawn to it just because of the name Blackwell in it. I always thought that was cool. I’m not sure who that song is in reference to. I think there is a magician whose last name is Blackwell because I’ve been asked that question. I’ve always wondered who that song is in reference to, but, yes, that song always spoke to me. I was never a huge KISS fan, but I always respected them. I love the look. I love the craziness.
William: The narrative of The Elder is kind of confusing, but I think he is supposed to be the villain. That’s about all I know about “Mr. Blackwell.” Is there a song from Rejoice in the Suffering that you are particularly proud of?
Craig: “Apology.” I had written that chorus piece that’s in there a while back. We fought with it a little bit and then said, “You know, let’s add this in here. This is kind of the sound and feel I’m going for.” Todd started writing lyrics, and then it got really emotional. Then, we finished up the end of the song where it goes up into the higher register. I feel that song. It really hits home. I really look forward to playing that song live one day. I’m proud of all of the songs, but that one hits me in the heart. It’s a really deep song for me.
William: I asked Todd about “Apology,” and I also told him that was my favorite song off the record. I like all of the record. I like the bonus tracks, too, but “Apology” is the one that rips you in half. It’s searing. What a great song.
Craig: That song is really emotional for Todd. I know that. We don’t want to elaborate too much on it, but it definitely hits home. There’s a lot of feeling behind that song.
William: He and I talked about it a little bit. He didn’t get into specifics, but I know from other interviews and so on what it’s about it or some of what it’s about. The background is out there for people who want to look around. “Apology” will really resonate with a lot of people, I think.
Craig: It’s a melodic, metal groove. It’s got everything in it. That’s the beauty of that song. I love the chorus of that song. That groove to me just really hits. That song has every aspect you would want in a metal song.
William: There’s the high parts. The catchy parts. The part about a minute in, where Todd does that long, rumbling, guttural “AHHHHHHH.” Just an incredible song.
Can you tell us a little bit about the equipment you used on the album—guitars, amplifiers, effects?
Craig: I’m a Jackson guy. I love Jackson guitars. I’ve owned Jackson guitars all of my life. I’ve always been a Randy Rhoads fan, so I’ve always loved the Vs, King Vs, Dinkys, solo Strats. Within the last three years, I’ve picked up a Chapman; it’s a British company. So I played four different guitars on the record: a Jackson, a Chapman, a Gibson Les Paul, and an ESP EC-1000. For amplification, I used a Kemper. A big-name producer—I’m not gonna name his name—gave us a secret preset that he has for rhythm guitars. I’ve always been big on the Mesa Boogie .50 Cal. Well, that’s the preset that was given to us for our rhythm sound. So that’s basically, a Kemper on the rhythms, and then I used an EVH EL4 through a Mesa Boogie 412 cabinet for the leads.
William: What about bass? You played bass on there, too, right?
Craig: Yep. I played through an Ampeg. It’s a smaller Ampeg head. I just run direct. I used a Music Man bass on the record.
William: Are there songs or parts of songs on Rejoice in the Suffering where you tried to channel a particular song, bassist, guitarist, or band?
Craig: This is a great question. You will hear a lot of different styles and guitar players. In these songs, I’m basically saying, “Hey, this is my inspiration.” You’ll hear Paul Gilbert, Jake Lee, Jason Becker, Zakk Wylde, Stryper, John Sykes, Jeff Loomis, a little bit of Joe Bonamassa, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Those are all guys that I grew up listening to. Neal Schon. I could keep naming guitar players. I wanted to say, “Hey, thank you.”
So there’s a lot of inspiration. So you remember Shotgun Messiah?
William: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Craig: Harry Cody is the guitar player. I don’t know what’s he’s doing now, but he is one of my favorite guitar players. He’s an unbelievable guitar player. He’s super-smooth. Blues Saraceno. I was always a huge Jason Becker fan and Marty Friedman. I just recently linked up with Jeff Loomis. I’ve always been a fan of him from the first time I heard him. These are just amazing players. All these guys helped shape how I play, especially back in the day when I first heard Stryper. Michael Sweet and Oz Fox playing together were unbelievable to me. I couldn’t believe what those guys were doing together. Just great guys and unbelievable guitar players.
William: You mentioned Jeff Loomis. Have you heard the Conquering Dystopia project that he did?
Craig: I’ve been so wrapped up in recording that I’ve really got to get back to some stuff that I’ve been missing, so I have not.
William: They classify themselves as an instrumental technical death metal supergroup. It’s really good stuff. The only weird thing is something about the record label one of the guys is on prevents Conquering Dystopia from releasing their record on CD, so you have to get it either as download or on vinyl.
Craig: Huh. That’s weird.
William: I think they want to get it out on CD at some point. Once we go from metal to death metal, I get pickier, so this is good stuff.
Speaking of death metal, Todd said he wants to go in more of a death metal direction on his next solo album, kind of in the vein of “One By One.” Are there additional styles, you’d like to explore in your playing on his next solo album?
Craig: Absolutely. We’ve actually already written some stuff that we’re working on. I know he wanted to go in that direction. That’s not my favorite genre, but I would love to do that project with him—no problem. That would take me in a different direction. I’m always looking to step out of the box. Every musician is in some sort of a box. I think we’d have a lot of fun with that.
William: Five albums down the line, you guys are gonna be doing bagpipes and polka.
Craig: [Laughs] Yeah, we’ll be all over the place.
William: Let’s say you’re doing the second album and Todd says, “Not all these songs have to be death metal. Let’s do a song that’s not death metal. You get to choose the style and direction.” What would you want to do?
Craig: I would go back to the groove. I always love groove. To me, that’s where my heart and soul is, that roots-metal groove. “One By One” is the oddball on this record, so doing a groove song would be the same thing on a second record. So if he asked me that and I said, “Let’s go back to a groove metal song,” we would have to try to make it fit, but that’s where my heart would go.
William: So let’s say y’all are able to do a little touring on the album. If you were going to include one cover song in your set, what would you include and why?
Craig: OOOOOOO! That’s a good one. Oh, man. Let’s see . . . . That’s a tough one. It might end up being a Pantera song or something to kick the audience in the teeth a little bit, surprise them a little bit. It would definitely be in that range. Pantera, maybe. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for it.
William: Well, I’m just going to throw this out there. Todd could really do “Cemetery Gates” justice. “Becoming” is a real get-you-going, pump-you-up track. I’d love to hear “Over the Mountain.” It’s got my favorite Randy Rhoads solo.
Craig: Oh, yep. That’s a great one. You know what? You just triggered one for me—“Believer.” I love Zakk Wylde’s version of that when they do that song live. “Believer” would be a really good tune to do live like that. Diary of a Madman is one of my favorite Ozzy albums of all time. I used to have the vinyl of that. I took the album jacket and pinned it to my wall and put the vinyl in another sleeve because I loved the picture. I’ve always loved that album cover.
William: Diary of a Madman has some great stuff. A lot of that early Ozzy stuff is so solid. You mentioned Jake E. Lee and it seems to me that Ultimate Sin and Bark at the Moon—especially Bark at the Moon—don’t get mentioned as much in Ozzy’s catalog as maybe they should, but to me Bark at the Moon is a great album.
Craig: Yeah, absolutely,
William: If I went into a bar and ordered a “Craig Blackwell,” what ingredients would the bartender put in the drink?
Craig: You know what that would be? That would be a variant of a Long Island Iced Tea. [Laughs]
William: Thank you so much for talking with me.
Craig: You’re welcome. Sounds good, buddy, and we can do this anytime.
William: That’s good to know. I want to talk with you about your future projects.
Craig: Keep in touch. You got my number. Like I said, any time.