Kill Devil Hill

Guitarist Mark Zavon – Strong Enough To Kill The Devil
by Sal Serio
August 2012

Kill Devil Hill

Kill Devil Hill

It’s a warm feeling when someone you know hits the big time. Like maybe how some of Hendrix’s band mates from the early 60s “chitlin’ circuit” felt when he joined the Experience, or how other New Jersey troubadours from the early 70s felt after “Born To Run”. I know I felt a certain sense of pride when I saw guitar man Mark Zavon join forces in the critically acclaimed Kill Devil Hill with Rex Brown (Pantera/Down) and Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath/Dio/Heaven & Hell). After seeing Mark bust his chops for years with the fusiony JRZ System, and later with ex-Ratt singer Stephen Pearcey, it was fulfilling to know that his wood shedding and determination has paid off. I had the opportunity to speak to Mark in advance of Kill Devil Hill’s debut Wisconsin performance, September 15th at Janesville’s Back Bar. Surprised that Mark’s resume listed the band W.A.S.P., I had to ask how I missed that one.

MZ: “It was interesting, I got hired to play with that band but never wound up doing a show! They’ve been friends of mine for years. I got the drummer with them now, Mike Dupke, (his) audition with the band. I had worked with Blackie for a while, doing odd jobs, tech work, roadie, or even just handyman type stuff. I was there working and he was auditioning guitar players. I asked the bass player, Mike Duda, if I could get an audition, ‘cause I could probably handle this gig. Blackie had no idea I could play guitar. So, I got in there and auditioned and he was like, “Wow, why didn’t you tell me you could do that? (Do) you want the gig then?”, and I was like yeah I’ll take it! Then right before we were going to go out on tour, Doug Blair had been calling wanting the gig back. Unbeknownst to me, I was unhealthy at the time, so it actually worked out for the best. If I hadn’t addressed a medical condition that I didn’t even know about, I wouldn’t even be here today.”

Remembering that Mark was sidelined with a collapsed lung after the Pearcey stint, I asked about that incident and how his health is holding up these days.

“They call it a spontaneous pneumothorax, and it happens to people sometimes when you’ve got a thin spot in your lung. That’s what happened to me, so (I had) chest tubes and all that stuff. They wound up cutting that part of the lung off and stitching it up, but I’m all good now. 100% healthy and ready to rock!”

So, being back on the road must really be a breath of fresh air for Mark, right? Groan… sorry, I had to do that.

“Eeehh, it’s okay, just a little annoyed at the whole airport deal. It’s going to cost us $900 to ship our stuff to Calgary. We’re like, please, cut us a break! So, we’re carrying on all kinds of weird stuff. I’m putting my shoes into a cymbal bag and stuff, just to make it work.”

Ah, the downside of the road, which is all the hours not on stage, and various hassles of travel arrangements and accommodations. But much has been written about that. I was more interested to know how the crowd reaction has been to Kill Devil Hill’s intense sound and powerful group chemistry.

“It’s been great! Kind of small but mighty at this point, but there have been really good crowds and people are really in to it. All fists in the air and screaming their lungs out! We’re going out with Alice Cooper in November, which should be really cool. I’m very excited to do that. Getting in front of a big rock crowd is what we really need to do.”

There was still the question of who Mark had been gigging with just prior to meeting Vinny Appice and the inception of Kill Devil Hill.

“The way I got this gig was, I was playing in World War Three, with Mandy Lion, the singer… Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice were on that record, so they were all friends. The drummer at that time, Jamie, worked at Aquarium Drum Heads and knew Vinny, He came in to rehearsal one night and was like, “Hey I ran into Vinny Appice today and he said he was looking for a guitar player. I gave him your number. You don’t mind, right?” Are you kidding me? Of course I don’t mind! Actually, before Vinny had a chance to call me I ran into him backstage at the House Of Blues in Hollywood, and I said hey I hear you’re looking for a guitar player… and he said, “Yeah, here’s my number, let’s see if we can get together.” It turns out we were less than a quarter of a mile away from each other, which, in L.A., is a huge deal. It was really easy. We started working together, recording stuff over at his place, then over at my place later on, and came up with some really good demos. He asked me if I knew a singer, and we got Dewey (Bragg) involved. We needed a bass player, and found the missing link. It just kinda fell together naturally. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Dewey Bragg… hell yeah! He is my prediction for the next big rock singer to grab everyone’s attention. The next Myles Kennedy, if you will, except with bigger balls and a more gnarly beard!

“He and I had a project that never really came to fruition. (Dewey) had written a few demos. I knew he was a great vocalist, and he and I got along really well. We’d go out to the bar and stuff, hang out and have a good time. After that (project) fell apart our paths didn’t cross for a while, and I really didn’t know if I was gonna get to work with the guy. Then when Vinny asked if I knew a singer, I knew right away that Dewey’s voice was perfect for the direction we were going. He came over and fit right in, we all got along great. He’s the perfect fit, and he’s just scratching the surface. When people really get a sense of what he’s capable of, I think they’ll be as impressed as I am. He’s a great front man, a real serious talent. He’s amazing and I love that guy!”

Kill Devil Hill’s debut CD showcases a band that perhaps has the best of both worlds, the sturdy professionalism of the veteran members, and the fresh faced attitude and hunger of the two new guys. Since all the songs have a consistency, dark and heavy yet with a catchy memorable hook to the melodies, a band “identity” has been immediately established. I was curious whether all four members contributed to the song writing process.

“Absolutely. When we first started Vinny just had drum tracks recorded and I wrote to those. Once we started jamming together, I’d have a riff and he’d play to it, and we’d record it. Later we’d try to steer it one way or the other. We all work together, but there’s no set way. To quote Rex , “Everybody in the band brings their own spice to the chili.” I think that’s accurate. It really does require all four of us to make it sound the way it does. That’s what makes it special.”

Knowing the more free-form prog-fusion- funk jam-instrumental music that Mark played in JRZ System, I had to ask if working in a heavier format gave him the same opportunity to stretch out and go for it.

“A little bit, but honestly this is something I wanted to do, since even before JRZ. Todd (Roberson) and I had some bands earlier on that were headed in this direction. I always wanted to continue in that direction, but in JRZ, when the three of us got together, we kind of did what comes naturally to the three of us, and that’s what came out. It was not necessarily heavy, or vocally oriented songs, or any of that. But my heart was always still in to that (darker stuff), and this is a chance to express that. It’s been kind of pent up for a while. I like writing the songs. The lyrics, the melodies, how everything fits together, that’s really interesting (to) me. Sometimes even more so than just the guitar soloing part. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to play the solo, but at the same time, the meat of the song, like a really good arrangement, can be really satisfying when it’s done. I find a lot of satisfaction in that, easily as much as I ever found writing solos or instrumentals.”

For the gear heads, of course I had to ask the guitar question…

“I’ve got a pair of SG 1’s, a limited edition that they made in the 90s. It’s a 24 fret single pickup Gibson SG. They’re really nice, lightweight, play like a dream, and they’ve got so much tone. There’s something about the body being thin like that, it makes it resonate a little bit better. I love them. I’m staring at them right now. I drag ‘em around with me, carry ‘em on every plane. I’ve got them slung across my shoulder pretty much wherever I am.”

Online, you can check out Mr. Zavon looking lean and mean in the video for the song “Strange”, which coincidentally was my album pick for a single. How does Mark like shooting videos?

“It’s basically us doing the live thing except with nobody there. I’m still playing the song even though they run playback. It’s nice to be able to do something at that level. We were actually just shooting some video footage for EMG pick-ups in Petaluma up in the Bay area here. They’ve got a wonderful studio up here and I’m excited to see how that footage comes out. With any luck we’ll be shooting another video coming up (soon).”

And the name of the band? I knew there was the town, Kill Devil Hills, in North Carolina.

“I was actually taking an aviation class in the late 90s and Kill Devil Hills is where the Wright Brothers flew the first airplanes. I thought, that kind of rolls off the tongue, and filed it away. So years later when we’re all throwing ideas in to the hat trying to figure out what to call this thing, that one seemed to stick. It really is an interesting story. Basically like 300 years ago when they were running rum up and down the coast, it was a really popular barter item, but if you got caught with a bunch of barrels of rum on your ship, you’d get taxed by the English Parliament. If you could see them coming, you could run your barrels on to the shore and bury them. They called the rum “kill devil” ‘cause it was strong enough to kill the devil! There’s something really rock ‘n roll about that.”

Predictably, I had to ask if Mark was big a fan of the other guys in the band beforehand. I mean, c’mon, the drummer played with Ronnie James Dio and Black Sabbath!

“Oh, yeah! I remember going to see the first couple of Dio tours, “Holy Diver” and “The Last In Line”, at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha. If somebody told me back then that I was going to wind up in a band with that drummer, I would have told them to get out of Dodge. You know, I’ve got to pinch myself sometimes.”

And when asked about Pantera, and Dimebag Darrell…

“For sure, I still listen to Pantera all the time (when) I go to the gym. I’m a huge Dimebag fan, and to be hanging out with Rex on a constant basis is just an honor. (He) and Vinny both, it’s such a privilege. You learn so much from hanging out with guys like that, because they’ve got so much experience. Just by paying attention, you notice what they do, just the little things that make it easier. They’ve been touring so long that you kind of pick up on the short cuts (which) makes it a lot easier on Dewey and I. We played at the Dime Bash in Hollywood last year. There’s a lot of great people out there and we had a really good time. I hope we get to do it again next year!”

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