Red Dragon Cartel

The Return of Guitar Slinger Jake E. Lee - an in depth interview with singer D.J. Smith
by Sal Serio
February 2014

Red Dragon Cartel featuring Jake E. Lee

Red Dragon Cartel featuring Jake E. Lee

I consider myself fortunate to have seen one of the first gigs by the new Jake E. Lee project, Red Dragon Cartel, January 24th at The Grove in Anaheim. The band was tight and full of attitude as they blasted through their new material, in a set peppered with highlights from Jake’s past work with Badlands and Ozzy Osbourne. I had the opportunity to catch up with vocalist Darren James Smith before the group starts it’s initial tour, which hits Wisconsin on Friday, March 21 , at the Back Bar in Janesville, with openers Hessler, and regional (Chicago area) favorites Convoy, who are busy recording their follow-up to the kick-ass ‘Blue Collar America’ release.

Maximum Ink: You were originally a drummer, and you’re from Canada, correct?

D.J. Smith: I toured the planet with a band called Harem Scarem, out of Toronto. I had left the band back in 2002 [or] 2003. My last show with them was in Japan, and I had an opportunity to sing for a band called Juice, that was signed to BMG. I wanted to try something different. I just did a 20 year reunion tour with Harem Scarem, just prior to starting with the Jake band.

MI: From what I’ve been reading, it seems that there was a Facebook post about Jake starting a new band, and all these people replied wanting the gig. That seems bizarre, is that really what happened?

DJ: I didn’t see any of that! Here in Canada, we have a franchise of music stores called Long & McQuade, and my buddy Kevin Simpson is the manager of the one in Oshawa, the town I live in. I went in there and he said, “Hey man, Jake E. Lee is looking for a singer”, and I’m like, “Yeah, so? Why are you telling me?” I figured it was a long shot, if anything. Anyway, I sent [something] in, and 12 hours later, my phone rang. I sent a video I shot with a band called Bastard, and it was a real sleazy, punk-rocky, in-your-face, rock tune and video (“L.A. Whore”). YouTube actually labeled it “Most Shocking” Rock Video. I don’t think it’s that shocking, but it definitely has no taste!  (laughing)  So, they saw that, and apparently they liked it.

MI: Before that, had you any interaction with (producer and bassist) Ronnie Mancuso?

DJ: Prior, no. It was Ronnie that called me. You know, they never said I had the gig. They just said, “We’re going to send you some stuff. We want you to do whatever you want to, and we want to hear what you do”. So, we started tracking here, and did everything via Skype. I would upload the tracks to them. We’d do it in the same ProTools format, so it would all line up. We did that for months. In my eyes, I never had the gig until I went to Vegas. I rehearsed with them for a week, and I was leaving to come home, and there was a send-off party. There were a bunch of other musicians from the Vegas strip there. We were all having drinks in The Hideout recording studios, and I’m leaving, and I just yell across the room, “Do I [have] the gig, or what”?  (laughing)  The whole room went silent, and Jake just said, “You always had the gig”.

MI: On the CD, there are several guest singers like Robin Zander, Paul Di’Anno, and Sass Jordan. Was that indicative of the way this project formed? Have you guys discussed the next record, and will be more of a solid band effort?

DJ: I’ve made a lot of records and done a lot of writing for other people, and, I think, as a debut record, it’s got a little of everything for everybody. It’s a very diverse record. I didn’t know how it was going to come off, because I never actually heard all the other tracks. I guess their intention was just to do a record with Jake and a bunch of guest singers, and the idea came up that they needed a touring singer, and that’s where I came in to the picture. It was a long, thought out process, and songs were rewritten multiple times. Jake and I are from very similar schools of rock, like real soulful blues kind of music, and I’m also a big punk rock fan. I had no idea Jake was [also] until I met him, but that kind of solidified the deal. It’d be really presumptuous of me to say we’re already on the next record. We’ve barely played this one. I think we’re going to break ourselves in to the public eye by letting people hear this record. Because [it] is so diverse, we’re kind of following what people are gravitating towards, which will probably be indicative of what the next record will be. All the years we’ve been playing have obviously come out in this music, and Jake is totally worldly, musically.

MI: The CD really has that classic, immediately recognizable, Jake E. sound that reminds the listener of the Badlands and Ozzy material. It comes across right away, from the opening riff of “Deceived”.

DJ: “Deceived” was actually one of the last songs written on the record. People go, “That sounds like ‘Bark At The Moon’”, but there’s not one chord that’s similar, it’s the rhythm. It’s very rhythmic, and he’s never done anything like that since “Bark At The Moon”.

MI: It’s updated, unique, and fresh, but at the same time, it seems obvious that you’re not trying to disassociate yourselves from Jake’s past either.

DJ: Well, no. I didn’t know his history and why he didn’t want to play, and what he was doing. I only found this out after spending hours with him. He was very content being at home, and he had no idea that he missed music, because, I guess he saw the ugly side of the industry. So, now he’s back and he’s in charge… we call him The Big Kahuna, by the way. He’s the shortest guy in the band, but we call him The Big Kahuna because he’s like, “I’m going to do this the right way”. He made us all full members, like, we’re not side guys. We’re not on a payroll. We all have as much in it as he does. That’s the way he wanted it. He’s the guy that dictates what we’re playing live, and how, and he’s an excellent leader. When we’re doing a live show, the pace of it [is] up to him. I’m his singer, and we just have some fun together. We’re still trying to meld this band together. We start March 5th. So, the band is obviously going to get incredibly tight, and we’ll really know who we are at that point.

MI: One thing in regard to what you were saying about Jake talking so much time off from music. When you started playing, like the first club show at the Whisky, was there an aura of Jake having to prove something? Was it intimidating?

DJ: That day was a bit of a blur. We rehearsed the night before until 3 in the morning, got up at 7, and drove. Landed in Hollywood at 4:00. Paparazzi was already there… socializing and talking for about 7 or 8 hours, before we even went on, at midnight. Drinks were flying. We were exhausted. We never even had time to be nervous, or think about those things you asked about. I knew that night [that] it wasn’t an “A” show, but I also knew we hadn’t slept that night and we had 4 days rehearsal. I thought we had done the best we possibly could. Now, Jake said, “Why did we even do that show, as our first show”? It’s been so long for him, that he didn’t realize the pressure of that first show. We’re trying to figure this out. We had a short-cut, obviously, because of Jakey’s past, but every show we do we have to prove ourselves. At the end of the day, we’re not going to go up there and fake anything.

MI: When I saw you play in Anaheim, the 2nd song of the set was Badland’s “High Wire”, and you introduced it by giving some props to Ray Gillen, saying he was the best singer ever.

DJ: In rock and roll? Yeah. If he’s not the best, he’s right up there. I have all the Badlands stuff. Nobody was singing soulful. I come from the Grand Funk rock school. I’m a Mark Farner, Don Brewer, kind of guy. Nobody in the 80s and 90s was doing anything like that. The first Badlands record came out, and that set a whole new precedent. But, I never, ever, volunteered to cover a Badlands song in a band!  (laughing)  That seemed a little too scary! I’m the type of singer that doesn’t sit around and practice singing. I just sing from my heart. I never even sang “High Wire” until… here’s a funny story. I had a connecting flight to Vegas when I was meeting the band. My flight didn’t land until 11:00 their time, which would’ve been 1 in the morning my time, and I had been traveling 14 hours. I hope that they let me go to my hotel room and rest… nope! Off the plane and right to rehearsal! I’m like, “I hope they don’t want to do High Wire first!”, first song – “High Wire”.  (laughing)  And all kinds of local rockers were there, hanging out. And I’m like, “You know what? I’m just going for it”! I just kicked the shit out of it!  (laughing)  ‘Cause I was full of adrenaline, and that was the first time I actually sang it out loud. I didn’t even know if I could!  (laughing)  I just went for it, and every night, it’s simple now. But when you think of Ray, oh yeah… his tone is intimidating as hell. I do my best at it, ya know?

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