John Corabi has seen and done quite a bit during more than three decades in the music business. His band The Scream caught the attention of Mötley Crüe in the early ‘90s, leading to him fronting that legendary act from 1992 to 1996. He then formed Union with former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick, later played guitar in Ratt and eventually became the singer of The Dead Daisies. (His resume includes numerous other side projects and bands, too many to list here.) Since leaving the Daisies in 2019, Corabi has been pursuing a solo career, starting with a heavy schedule of acoustic live shows and now with recording and releasing new music. The first taste of his new material comes in the form of “Cosi Bella (So Beautiful),” an unexpectedly bouncy, upbeat number for which he cites Queen’s “Killer Queen” and The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” as inspiration. He also used his pandemic-induced break from the road to write his autobiography, “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades,” scheduled for publication in April 2022. Live Metal’s Greg Maki recently caught up with Corabi to discuss his new music, the book and more.
LIVE METAL: We’re more than 18 months into this pandemic now. How have you been holding up, both physically and, maybe more importantly, mentally?
JOHN CORABI: Physically, I’ve been fine. I kind of did the self-quarantine thing and just stayed at home here. The mental thing’s been not being able to go out and really work on a steady basis like before. But I kept myself busy. The one thing that COVID made me realize was—once they shut everything down, I was kind of panicked for a minute. Ninety-five percent of most musicians I know, their income comes from touring. I wrote a book with a gentleman named Paul Miles, and then the other thing that I was kind of kicking myself in the arse for was I realized that after all these years and all these records that I’ve done, I really didn’t know how to record myself. So I took a Pro Tools class. I’m still a novice at it. I’m still figuring it out. But I took some classes, and I just said you know what, if this ever happens—knock on wood—if it ever happens again, at least I could move forward. Even at a snail’s pace, I can move forward. I don’t really need to rely on anybody. I had already started in the studio with (producer) Marti Frederiksen, and once COVID hit, he went under a rock, I went under a rock, and it was like work stops. So I took the classes, I wrote the book, and life rolls on.
You’ve played a few acoustic shows here and there. Was that good for you or did getting a taste of it make you miss it even more?
Well, obviously, I love doing what I do. I like being busy. Let’s just be real: This is how I make my living. This is how I pay my electric bill. This is how I pay my gas bill and all the stuff. You sit there as a self-employed, musician—that’s one of the things that I was a little disappointed in, with the PPP and the unemployment and all these options that you had. As a musician, you kind of got to jump through hoops for it. You’re not really considered a necessity. And I don’t think people take musicians very seriously. So we were kind of left on our own to figure it out. That part was a little stressful, but I just—knock on wood—I got through it. I’m hoping that we’re coming out the other side, but it was crazy. The year prior, I think I did 100, 125 gigs, and I think in the last 18 months I’ve done 10. It’s a little scary—hence the white beard. (laughs)
You’ve always been so comfortable playing acoustically and doing those shows. Is that how, when you’re writing, a lot of your songs begin?
Yeah. I have a couple acoustic guitars in my house, and they’re usually within arm’s length away, even if I’m watching TV. A lot of times, I’m watching the TV and I’m just noodling around on the guitar. And it’s one of those things where left brain/right brain—right brain is always working creatively. But I’ll be sitting watching the TV and I’ll just noodle around on the guitar, and then all of a sudden, this little riff will come out, and I go, “Oh, wait, what was that?” Grab my phone, sort it out, and then lay it down just so I have it.
Pretty much from day one, everything that I’ve ever written has been on an acoustic guitar and then translated into electric. Even the Mötley thing, I would go home and I would work on a riff on an acoustic guitar, bring it in and show it to the guys, and then we would develop it as a band. But for the most part, I’m always just sitting with an acoustic guitar. It’s easier. You can hear it better. So I’ll write the riff and then go in and translate it electrically.
Through most of your career, aside from the “Unplugged” album you did, you’ve always been working in bands, where when you’re writing, you have to take into account the opinions of three or four other people. So now that you’re working solo, has it been liberating to just be able to do whatever you want?
Yeah, “Cosi Bella” being a prime example. I initially started working on that song when I was doing the “Burn It Down” sessions with The Dead Daisies. We had plans at the time to go to New York as a group and write together with Marti. Marti and I lived in Nashville, so I called him ahead of time and I said, “Hey, let’s get a little bit of a jump on this and maybe see what we come up with.” We had five or six ideas, and I really liked “Cosi Bella,” but when I played it to the guys, they were kind of like, “What are you trying to do here?” I probably didn’t explain it that well. The song wasn’t really recorded. What I played them was my phone recording of Marti and I just with a couple acoustic guitars kind of scatting a melody into the phone. In their defense, it was really in its roughest form, and they passed on it, so I put it away. And then I went back and I took a look at it.
Right now even, on my phone I’ve probably got 60 different little guitar riffs—or close to it. And then what I’ll do is I’ll go back and look at them, and I’ll just start at the top, and I’ll go through it and whatever one just kind of perks my ears up that day, that’s the one I’ll work on.
But anyway, I sat down and I worked on “Cosi Bella,” and when I told Marti, I said, “Man, I’m really kind of hearing this ‘Killer Queen.’ It’s got a little bit of a bounce to it. It’s got balls, but it’s a pop tune.” And he totally understood it, and then he added some horns and different things like that to even take it even more in maybe a “Penny Lane” kind of a vibe. I love the way the song came out.
The cool thing about the way I’m doing things now is I don’t have any parameters. Obviously, if I would have brought this song to Mötley, I would have had the same outcome—”No, we can’t really do that.” Or The Scream or Union or whatever. So the freedom of just focusing on one song, doing a video for it, putting it out there, it is kind of liberating because I don’t have to ask anybody. I just talk to Marty about it, and we do it.
I love the contrast in that song of your gritty, raspy voice and then that bouncy, upbeat music. Is that what you were going for?
I don’t know if I was intentionally going for anything. Initially, I had the chords for the verse, and I had a different chorus. And Marti was like, “You’re overthinking it. Let’s trim it down a little bit.” And he really helped me put the chorus together. Again, I’m a huge fan of The Beatles, huge fan of Queen. Probably, one of my favorite Beatles tunes is “Penny Lane,” and then I would have to say hands down, my all-time favorite Queen song is “Killer Queen.” And so when I came up with the chords, I’m like, “Yeah, I could probably put something together that had that vibe to it and really musical.”
I’m so tired of—this is a really long answer, and I apologize—but since the ’80s, once these bands started doing multi-platinum albums and there started to become a formula, I think bands got away from—I don’t want to say got away from being creative, but it’s like, “OK, here’s our format. This is what works. This is what sells us records.” They don’t stray from it. The music that I grew up with was from around the time The Beatles did “Revolver” to 1980 or ’81. I thought those 15 years of music, you have bands like Zeppelin that weren’t afraid to do something like “Misty Mountain Hop” and then turn around and do “The Rain Song,” these really kind of eclectic masterpieces. Same with Queen. The Beatles were incredibly experimental as they got later into their career. And I like that part. I like using weird instruments—a bell or a triangle or harpsichord or xylophone—whatever.
So that was the thing when I told Marti, I said, “Listen, not a lot of bands are selling music right now. A guy like me is never going to get on the radio. If I do, it’s going to be minimal. There is no MTV. So the gloves are off. Let’s just be as musical as we can.” He as much as anybody came to the table and was like, “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s do a really musical, ’70s-era record.”
I think you’re right about bands today being so narrow and limited in what they do. I think that’s why we see so many guys who have their one band and then there’s two or three side bands they’re doing to do other kinds of music because they think their fan base won’t accept it in the other one.
Well, they’re doing it for multiple reasons. Maybe the creative thing. But again, nobody’s really selling any records, so I think everybody’s really just kind of throwing a bunch of nets out to see what catches—which is fine. Keep busy, keep moving. It’s a different time and a different era right now. Again, even this song, I put it out there, and I’m actually starting to realize that the method now isn’t even about selling the songs. It’s about getting on as many playlists as possible and creating a revenue source through your streams, which is crazy to me. I’m figuring it out as I go. Until we all get back touring again and we have vinyl and CDs to sell at shows, this is how it’s gonna be.
But my thing is labels. There’s punk rock, there’s punk-pop rock, there’s rock, there’s heavy metal, there’s death metal, there’s speed metal. I’m like, God, lose the labels and just do what you want to do. You know what? I have an idea. Let’s just play music. Whatever comes in here, comes out here, put it on tape, and do your thing to it and put it out there. Let’s lose the labels. I just want to do something, like I said, ’70s, the era that I grew up with. So I just want to do something that’s very ’70s, creative, and if it winds up being a song with harpsichords and xylophones—awesome. That’s what you’re going to hear.
So is the plan for the foreseeable future to release more singles and then, eventually, an album when you can actually go on tour and sell it like you were saying?
Yeah. Ultimately, if you really look at things over the last 10 years, the bands that are selling their records are selling them through their own personal website, Amazon or at the shows. So it’s gonna happen. But Marti was the one who’s really kind of talking with me. He goes, “Dude, why are you doing a record? Nobody’s buying any records.” He’s like, “Do one song and a video. Let it sit for a month or two. Do another song and a video. Do all the press. Get people talking about it. Do three or four singles, five singles, then drop the album, sell it at your shows.” I want to do vinyl, CDs—everything. And he goes, “Sell them on Amazon, your website and your shows. But set it up for a little while with the singles and the videos.” And apparently a lot of people are doing it this way. I’m kind of old school and clueless. I tell everybody I’m a blind man in a closet trying to find the door. (laughs)
Speaking of vinyl, there was a re-release of the Scream album earlier this year, and I saw there’s another one that’s in pre-orders. I also saw there are plans to remaster and re-release the two Union albums on vinyl. It must make you feel pretty good to see this renewed interest in these things you did in the past.
You know what, it does. But it’s really kind of annoying, because I don’t understand these record labels—their method of thinking. For example, the Scream album. I’ve gone to the label a few times, and I said, “Listen, man, I’m getting emails from fans that are spending $200, $300, $400, $500 on a CD or a vinyl record that came out in ’91. Why don’t you put this record out?” And they’re hemming and hawing around. So then I said to them, “Well, you know what, give me the record. Let me put it out. I’ll do an iTunes license, and we’ll work out some sort of a thing where you get paid back as we go.” “No, I don’t want to do that.” So what they’re doing, which I don’t understand, is they’ll allow another label to do little runs—500, 350, 125, whatever—put them out, and then they pull the license. And if I’ve had one, I’ve had 1,000 fans since iTunes has been around, they’re like, “Dude, why don’t you do an iTunes license so we can download it?” And I’m like, “I really have nothing to do with this.”
But I don’t understand the labels. They sit there and they go, “No, we’re not going to give you the record because you still owe us this amount of money.” But they won’t put it out to make up that amount of money that I owe them. I don’t understand the thinking, and it’s that way across the board, even with the Union shit. It’s like, “No, we’re not going to put it out because you owe us this.” “OK, well, then can you do an iTunes license?” “No, we’re not going to do that.” So I don’t understand the thinking there, at all.
I’ve always thought Union was one of the great overlooked rock bands of the past 25 years or so. And I look at the success of The Dead Daisies, and I think a band like Union would be a lot more successful now. Do you think it was the timing was just not right back in the late ’90s?
Apparently, this is my M.O. I do these records, and at the time, they either get slagged or nobody hears them, and then like 20 or 25 years later, it’s like, “Ah, what a classic, cult record.” I don’t get it, hence the name of my book, “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.” I’ve been at the right place but always at the wrong time. It is what it is. I’m really happy that Lindsley Records has decided to even do a small run. It gives a few fans an opportunity to grab the record at a reasonably decent price, and then that’ll be that. And the interest has been great. But just the whole thing boggles me. I don’t know. But I don’t look backwards. Right now, I got up this morning, I’m having coffee, we’re talking about “Cosi Bella,” and I can’t worry about The Scream—that was 30 years ago. Mötley was 25 years ago. Union, 20. I’m onward and upward.
What was the experience of writing the book like? Because you did have to look back for that.
Nauseating at times. It’s not a tell-all book about any one band that I’ve been in. It’s just funny to me. For every Steven Tyler or Eddie Vedder that’s out there, there’s another guy somewhere in his garage writing songs that are a million times better. And for whatever reasons, their lives are like mine. I can’t even say like mine. I’ve actually had a leg up, as well. But they’re just at the right place at the wrong time. Everybody sits there and goes, “Hard work, perseverance and not taking no for an answer.” But at the end of the day, there’s one ingredient in this whole scenario that nobody talks about, and that’s luck. Even me, I’ve got friends that I left behind in Philadelphia that were 1,000 times the musician I was. But due to their circumstances—they got married, maybe they had an unexpected kid and they just thought they needed to rethink everything and just went and did a regular job. I don’t know what their things were, but their circumstances led them on a different path. So there’s a lot of luck involved in this whole thing.
The book is just really about perseverance and the obstacles that this guy overcame and I’m still trying to overcome. I’m sitting here at 62, 30-plus years in the business, and I still feel like I’ve just fallen short of the mark of that one hit song. It just kind of explains everything, my mental status at the time of whatever was happening. It’s a cool read. (laughs).\
I’m really looking forward to it, because even though I’ve followed your career for 30 years and read and watched interviews with you, I feel like I don’t really know a lot of the real personal details. So I’m excited to find out about that stuff.
That’s what Paul Miles said to me, the guy that actually helped me co-write the book. Paul has a website called Chronological Crüe. Australian guy. I went down in 2019, and I did four or five shows there, and Paul was hanging out at the time. Initially, I did not want to do a book, because I felt like at this point, at this stage of the game, you’ve got rock guys doing cookbooks. There are so many books out there, it’s ridiculous. And I felt like I was jumping on some sort of bandwagon. But he said the same thing. He goes, “Even with the chapters that you had in ‘The Dirt,’ you’re still a huge mystery to a lot of people. Where did you come from? What was your family life?” We kind of touched, in Motley, a little bit on the Uncle Jack thing. So this really just goes through my entire career up until about a year ago. It does give you a little bit of insight. Paul said the same thing. He goes, “You know, John, I’ve been a Motley fan forever.” And he goes, “I don’t know shit about you—nothing. Other than what’s on Wikipedia“—which most of it is wrong (laughs), so whatever. So I just said, “Alright, fine, let’s do it.” And I already did an audiobook. I just got back from L.A. last week. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. Maybe I’ll make a late career change and become an author. (laughs)
Is there a timetable set up for releasing new music, or do you just want to see how “Cosi Bella” does and go from there?
I’ve got more stuff already recorded, and I’m still working on new stuff. I would like to, ultimately, do maybe a song every two months, with a video. Do three, four, five of them while I’m working on finishing the album. It’s just getting everybody’s schedule together. Marti’s been busier than shit with Buckcherry and Chris Daughtry and Carrie Underwood. I’m just, like I said, working at a snail’s pace here at my house, in between going to L.A., doing audiobooks, coming back, doing interviews for “Cosi Bella.” So it’s been a little crazy, but ultimately, I’d like to do a song every month and a half, two months with a video and put it out there and just keep going.
Awesome. I definitely look forward to hearing more. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we go?
No, I just thank everybody, and if you’re interested in hearing “Cosi Bella,” it’s on all the digital sites and all the streaming sites. So check it out.
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