Hair metal humourist or gonzo orchestral Don? Mr Crane is a man of man parts, as Paul Kerr found out...
I got the chance to have a chat with Whitfield Crane (Ugly Kid Joe) on Thursday morning in his home town of Paolo Alto where he tells me the weather is Utopian. Quite different to what we were about to experience in Canberra over that weekend. Whit is coming to Australia, bringing the Orchestra of Doom along with him. During the conversation I was able to chat with Whit about the origins of the Orchestra of Doom and the unique experience of playing Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne songs in front of a full Orchestra.
Orchestra of Doom – I read you came up with the idea while you were in Italy. What was the spark that got you moving with this idea? “Orchestra of Doom manifested by connecting with people. In this case, it was the first violinist of the Machiavellian Orchestra, Ukash from Poland. We connected in Verona (Italy) and he’s a profound and incredible musician. A really cool dude and he was my drinking buddy. If you’re going to go out and rage, party and drink and carry on in Italy, the Italians don’t rage, rage. They have a couple of wines, a three-hour meal then they go home and go to sleep. But some of us like to go drink beers until about 4.a.m. in the morning, that’s where I found my friend who would do that with me, and he was the violinist. We would talk and talk about music, orchestral music, heavy metal music. I was sitting in my flat at 3 or 4 in the morning, we were sitting there drinking beers, smoking cigarettes and shit like that and I looked over and I could see the case of his violin. It was late night, with the window open as it was a hot summer night, you shouldn’t make any noise. So, I’m like dude, play your violin. He’s a sweet guy, he goes ‘No, no it’ll be too loud’. But I’m like ‘its music, people will love it.’ Here, if you make noise, you wake up a whole block, but he’s like ‘OK’. He starts shredding the violin, and he’s such a virtuoso, and it was so loud, and it echoed through the streets so loud and maybe it did wake people up. But it would have been a harmonious awakening. As he was playing, I was amazed at how beautiful it was. I could see the textures of a lot of iconic music I grew up with, whether it be (Judas) Priest or (Black) Sabbath or whatever. You know the haunting part of heavy metal. Epiphany may be too strong a word, but certainly the penny dropped. I was like holy shit; this sounds so fucking rad. The he went off back to his flat and I went to sleep. I woke up the next day and I really tried thinking about just documenting what I felt. Within that thought pattern, which was quite limited when comparing it to Orchestra of Doom, I just wanted to get in an Opera House, any Opera House in Verona. I was really interested, and I asked him a couple of days later ‘Hey Man, can you get a key to any of these houses?’ ‘Why would I want to do that?’ Well that would be because those rooms (claps to demonstrate) if you clap your hands, were made for. It predates electricity, it was made for this (referring to the echo of the clap), just incredible, I want to be part of that. So I was like we could maybe sneak in there and you could play the violin like that one night and I could sing Sabbath songs and we could video it on the iPhone and it’d be cool to document it. Be cool to just have in my pocket, I could show it to my friends or my mum or whoever. He thought about it, long and deeply, then looked up and said, ‘Wouldn’t you want the whole orchestra?’ I was like ‘What do you mean?’ He was saying that they wanted to cross-pollinate, right now it is a good time to do this, hit the crossroad with these conceptuals. I said, ‘Fuck yeah dude.’ He knows very well, Andrea Battistoni, the conductor who ended up transposing this all, who’s a genius, and we all started hanging out in Italy. It was just going to get drinks, and smoking cigarettes, talking about things and throwing ideas like wouldn’t this be cool, what do you think about this or that. The lynchpin is Andrea Battistoni because that’s the dude who has the heavy hand and the keys in Verona. Look him up, this dude is a bad ass mo-fo. The fact that he got behind it, he’s a young guy who loves his metal, he’s just this young prodigy type conductor. So together, you know I have my own Chi, and my own animalistic part of myself which is… obvious! And then you know, you have all these classical types so it just kind of… some ideas just want to happen. It’s very rare, I’ve seen it happen a couple of times and this is one of them, where you just become a conduit for the idea itself. Everything the idea (in this case it is Orchestra of Doom) touches makes people feel alive or electric. There’s a lot to do with timing and the idea itself. So, for whatever reason, this idea, it kind of wants to be born and everyone I’ve shown it to wants to be part of it“.
I was going to ask what was working with Andrea like, the pitch you gave him must have been easy then because he was open to it. “Once again, no one was really trying to do anything or get anything out of it because it was all based on experientials. It wasn’t like we were trying to sell a t-shirt or whatever. It was like when I was there in Verona with all these classically trained musicians, but when they looked at me, from a rock band, they looked at me like I was a weird rock ‘n roll unicorn. So, they wanted to take advantage of me in that capacity, and I was like this would be great if we could merge all this. I was like originally; wouldn’t it be cool if I could go in a room with an iPhone. Then of course a good idea turns into a bigger idea, some ideas have legs and this one got bigger with Andrea Battistoni as the lynchpin, without a doubt”.
It’s been done in slightly different ways previously, you’ve got orchestras playing along to the bands, but this is completely outside that circle. When did you really think it could work? “After we actually performed, we didn’t know until we performed. Andre would be taking trains to his other orchestral gigs, he does arenas, like ancient arenas with operas. So, he’d go all over Italy, and he’d be transposing all the Black Sabbath songs, Ozzy songs, Ugly Kid songs, Richards Crane songs and he’d transpose them just on the train, that’s how brilliant he is. He’d be just sitting there, using pen and paper and transpose; I can’t imagine doing that, but he can, and he did it. So, I’d sit with him and he’s like talking to Beethoven man, I’d ask him pertaining to when did you think it would work and that’s a great question. I’d look at him, not really scared, but puzzled and outside my comfort zone and I’d go ‘How’s it going? How’s all the transcribing?’ He’d reply, ‘It’s going great.’ He’d have a big cigar, and that orange drink, whatever it’s called in Italy. ‘I’m like alright Andrea.’ I’m thinking I’m going to ask him, ‘What do you think it’ll sound like?’ He looked at me with a big smile, with his cigar in his hand he goes ‘Sounds good in my head’. I’m thinking wow, you think of somebody’s brain like that, everybody has a special power, but music is such an interesting, transcending force, so imagine how tuned this guy is. I really liked that answer, it sounded good in his head, which gave me a little confidence. Depending on who transposes it right, it could be a male or a female, it would be a conductor of some sort, it would be a musician at a high tier. So, whoever does that, it would sound like their interpretation. To be working with this guy, but it was at his pace, we weren’t trying to get anywhere. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in Italy before, I love Italy, and I love any country that is pro- you know it is LIFE first, everything moves slow. You know the meals are three hours, you can smoke and drink at the same time. Hoo-fucking-ray for Italy. But equally if you are trying to get something done in Italy… I get shit done all the time, I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff that I do. I work and I work a certain way, which is the Western way, which isn’t right or wrong, it just is. But Italy, to get shit done, it’s like a slow boat to China. It doesn’t get done, I’m like well let’s do this and there’s a long pause… It could be the smallest and most mundane conceptual, you go what about this, and the response is let’s think about it for two days. You’re like “Jesus Christ, really?” But when in Rome, literally… The fact it got done at all, it’s a small Italian miracle”.
So why Black Sabbath? “I love Sabbath, I’m a big Black Sabbath fan. I love Ozzy, they’re my heroes. Short answer is these guys are my heroes and they affected me and still affect me in my life. You know when you’re young, I’m not young now, I’m fifty one. When you’re young and you find music in whatever form, it’s like a smell or it’s like the soundtrack to your life. There are certain songs for every bit, like when I hear Masters of Reality to this day, or Hand of Doom or whatever… I’m like fuck, I’m instantly hypnotised to a certain way or a certain strength or tapestry of my life when everything was infinite and possible. I still feel that way, like I never lost that, the main currency for why I feel still like that is music in general and one of the bands that has affected me at that level is Black Sabbath, without a doubt. And now of course with Diary of A Madman and Blizzard of Oz, those records with Randy Rhodes, with Ozzy, they fucking trip me out. It’s not like I listen, I won’t go into some of the bands, some bands didn’t hold up for me, I was like, oh, it wasn’t that good and that’s ok. But the stuff like Sabbath and Ozzy, to this day you put it on… If I’m like sad or grumpy or off centre, I can put on Diary of A Madman, Sweet Leaf or whatever the fuck you put on I’m instantly like I feel better”.
How did you go about picking the songs? What were the ones that Andrea got, were there ones you really wanted him to get to? Or did it come down to Andre just saying yeah, I can do that one or not? “Andrea was pretty much open to what I wanted to do, because he was a fan of Sabbath and Ozzy. So it wasn’t that thought out, it was more off the cuff. I don’t think he could really go wrong with Sabbath or any of the Ozzy songs. So, we just threw a bunch up and he did them. For this new venture we could actually do some more, because he loves it, but he’s a busy guy. It was more like the songs themselves, once again I swear, we were more like conduits of whatever it wanted to be. Maybe that’s a little flighty or romantic, but that’s what it felt like. So, within the spectrum of the idea itself, orchestra, what does it want to be, all kinds of heavy metal, orchestral fungus, whatever it wants to do. So good question about picking the songs, I don’t even remember picking the songs“.
It just rolled out! I was going to ask whether it made it easier or more challenging, but it sounds like it was fluid, coming out naturally. “That’s exactly right, flow based”.
I saw you got a lot of support from Ozzy in doing this, he sent you a whole heap of gear before the gig you did with the orchestra which was really cool. Have any other Black Sabbath members, for instance, Tony Iommi, been in contact with you about it? What did they think of the concept if they have? “Not yet, the guy I’m working with is your friendly neighbourhood tennis legend, Pat Cash. Pat’s friends with so many heavy metal icons and people. I think that Pat may have sent it off to Tony or his handler. Hopefully, here’s the main thing, I’m a fan of music, heavy metal music, I’m a straight up of those guys who are still walking the earth, and in this particular storyline that would be Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. If we can go out there and celebrate their sonic history and make them feel good and make them feel loved… I mean that’s really one of the by-products of what it’s going to be. This is going to turn on people to something they’ve never heard before and I’m going to part of that. It’s fun and awesome and scary and challenging, sure people are going to check it out and go wow. But one of the other by-products you hope for and that would be innate is that it makes those guys feel good. I know for a fact it makes Ozzy feel good and that guy has made me feel so good in my life in so many different moments, way before we met him. I’m a fan, I love Priest, Sabbath and AC/DC, I love that shit, so it’s a neat thing. You know if I was any of those guys, and some crazy kid from California, was all Sabbath Orchestra, it would make you feel good. So, I hope it makes those guys feel good and they deserve to feel good”.
You and Pat are bringing this tour to Australia, so he saw what you did in Italy? Or was it you got talking and… “I’m really into tennis and by hook or by crook I ended up at the Australian Open two years in a row via Pat and because of that we connected and started talking about heavy metal; I mean he’s a full metalhead, he’s so cool. He’s a great man, you know what he’s kind of like a Renaissance Man. So, he’s like if you’re ever at the French Open, he’ll hook you up. And I’m like fuck yeah, that’s all I needed to hear. I went immediately and lived in a hotel in France for like thirty five days, I went to see the tennis. I got to see Nadal and Federer and Serena and all that. I got to see all kinds of shit I could only imagine, and it’s a good experience. You’d think tennis would be stiff, but tennis is cool, I get to have a beer and smoke a cigarette. So, I’m like “Yes! Tennis Rules!” Push comes to shove and we went out to dinner in Paris, and he, myself and his gal. We were sitting there talking and when we sit and talk (Pat and myself) we can’t but help turn the discussion to heavy metal. It’s not braggy stuff, it’s comparing heavy metal notes as fans. We went on and on and on, it’s cool. It’s like our bodies are older but we’re still like kids who love heavy fucking metal. In my pocket was an iPhone 6S and in that phone was a little bit of the documentation from the Orchestra of Doom in Verona, Italy. So, I was like I got this, and I showed it to him, and he gave it a certain look. He was like, ‘Jesus Christ dude, can I show this to my friend in Australia?’ I said, ‘For what?’ He was like ‘You need to fucking tour this thing, this is special.’ ‘You think so?’ Because I didn’t know, but he did, he felt a great synergy with it and a great passion. That guy’s a doer, he doesn’t sit around talking shit, he does stuff. So, push comes to shove and now he’s bringing it to Australia. I love the amalgam of Tennis and metal, it’s perfect for me. It ensures I’ll see more tennis”.
The first concert was with the Machiavelli Orchestra at a sold-out gig, what was the response like? “From the orchestra themselves? Or the crowd?” Both. “My interpretation of it, for the orchestral players they just kind of watched the world go by. These guys and gals are profound musicians, incredible, professional musicians that have given their lives to a particular artform in whichever instruments they are playing. So, when you get the rock ‘n roll unicorn rolling through town and the chance to play something outside of that box, they were stoked. Super happy and excited because it was something new. They were like fuck yeah; I want to do that. It’s kind of like punk rock for them in a real sense. On that level they were excited and of course their leader was Andrea Battistoni, and whatever that dude says… He’s like their orchestral cult leader… He’s a bad ass fucking dude. So, I was like rad, this is hilarious, you know I don’t know anything about music, I can’t read music and there I was in the middle of it all. As far as the show itself which sold out in the Astoria Theatre, which is the third oldest opera house in Verona, Italy… You know it had a cross section, it had kids in heavy metal shirts, old school orchestral fans, people that loved the opera dressed up in their opera clothes. Every type of person and I’m up there with a microphone, looking at a tri-tiered opera house. It had every type of person looking to see what this was like, and it was sold out, people couldn’t get in. Jesus Christ it was cool. It’s hard to do that, once again you can’t set out to do it, but a by-product of the whole experience is we shook the whole fucking town up. You walk off stage and you know it’s good or half arsed (well at least I do). You walk off stage and looked at whoever you performed with and in this case, it was an entire orchestra and a whole town really made feel, at least at that moment there had been a shift, a pleasant shift in the ancient rules of Verona, Italy. Even Verona, Italy, everything about it was like a smile, a Mona Lisa smile”.
You are playing some of your own back catalogue during the sets, what can the crowds expect? “Cats in the Cradle sounds incredible, Andrea was like we’re doing that song and I was like really? You know I don’t know how many times I have sang that song and then I heard what it became and it’s so special for me, it’s finally something else. So that’s special, No One Survives off Stairway to Hell, another special song. Tim McMillan and I wander up with an acoustic and play Cloudy Skies, there’s other shit in there but I forget it at the moment. It’s mainly Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne solo stuff off Diary of a Madman, Blizzard of Oz, a couple of Ugly Kid Joe songs and then there’s a band that’s unknown, but is very powerful in the set is a band called Richards Crane. Which is my friend Lee Richards and myself, Richards Crane is a by-product of a band I sang in 2007 called Another Animal which is heavy as fuck. I met Lee through that experience, so we made this sick acoustic record which funny enough, there was Andrea Battistoni transposing all that shit, which sounds fucking sick with an orchestra. We treat it (the whole experience) as an opera, we have an intermission. Within the matrix of doing this I thought it was very important, as did Andrea Battistoni, that we treat that side of it with respect and love. So, we do that. It’s like (putting on a very toffy accent) “Hullo there, were going to the Opera.” It just happens to be Black Sabbath”.
With Australia, are we a testing ground to take it further or do you think we’ll just be the lucky ones? “Once again, it’s not really thought out. I’m amazed we are doing it at all. Objectively you could say am I thinking long game? Not really, I’m thinking, do this interview, get some people in the room, do everything I can do to make this work in the short term, in the sense of these shows. I’m putting everything into it, then once I’m done, I let go of it. This experience will of course dictate the next experience and as long as I’m present in my transitorial behaviours, which is weird but doable. It all kind of shows itself for me, like I don’t have a fixed address, I have a backpack and a credit card and a passport and NO felony record! So, I Just kind of cruise around and I’ve got so much creativeness coming through me right now that right now I’m in one of the better places I’ve been in twenty years of my life. That has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve gone through the melee of time and space of being a creative and I’ve seen what can eat you up inside and I can see what the grace of it is; I now can actually apply those wisdoms to stuff like this. All the bullshit of it doesn’t bother me, but the fun and the creation of it, I concentrate on that. When I was a kid I couldn’t negotiate the seas of G, but now I can”.
Whitfield Crane, it has been my pleasure getting to speak with you. “Have a beautiful day man, shine bright“.
Whitfield Crane brings The Orchestra of Doom to Australia for the following brace of shows:
3rd December Melbourne Palais Theatre
7th December Sydney Darling Harbour Theatre
Tickets on sale now!