Rock and roll all night8/14/2015
There are few pleasures in life that are finer than getting together with some friends, partaking in a few adult beverages and swapping seemingly endless tales about how things were so much better back in “The Day,” that pseudo-magical time period when the cars were faster, boys were tougher and the music was better.
In truth, the cars weren’t faster than today’s models. Boys will be boys and always have been. But the music? There might be a grain of truth in that one.
Or so says Michael Schneider, a.k.a. “Happy”, the guitarist and founding member of the wildly popular ’70s and ’80s rock tribute band, Hairball, which will be hitting the stage at the Iowa State Fair for two shows Sunday and Monday night at 7:30 p.m. on the Bud Light Stage.
Schneider, who has been entertaining audiences with his fretwork prowess, mid-song tuck-and-rolls and ear-to-ear grins for 15 years now, is a child of the 1970s and ’80s, an era when arena rock ruled the music landscape. He makes no bones about his love for the days of big hair and larger-than-life rock star personas. It’s his mission to bring happiness to young and an old alike via the music that first made him feel that very same way.
“Seeing the smiling faces, making people happy, that’s a rewarding feeling,” Schneider said in a recent phone interview with Cityview. “Hairball has done that for me 10-fold. I want to give them that feeling of mystique that was there that we’re missing today. And I think we do a good job of bringing that out.
“I didn’t write this book, but I’m going to read it to ya.”
CV: How did Hairball begin?
MS: Like most great things, it started out as a lighthearted joke and has spread like mold into the machine you see before you now. We were doing tongue-in-cheek things, kind of making fun, changing the lyrics, and as things evolved, the more dead-on recreations of these groups were developed. We got better response, and it was more fun. Then we added pyro technics and started investing in the show with video and lights and every magic trick we could get — the same things we loved when we were kids.
CV: Did wanting to be a musician in a band that put on these big, bombastic stage shows happen because you saw a concert growing up and decided that’s what you wanted to do?
MS: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I wanted to do. And once we were able to do that, there was really no reason to change it. The only thing we didn’t figure out was how to grow up.
CV: What are some of your earliest rock and roll memories, then?
MS: As a kid, when I went to see KISS and Aerosmith and David Lee Roth in Van Halen, I wanted to see the big jumps off the drum riser. As soon as my mom took off to go to the grocery store when I was in sixth grade, I was blasting the stereo wide open. My bed was a drum riser, and I was practicing those spread eagle kicks and hitting my head on the ceiling. That’s the way I know it to be. And we’ve had the opportunity to perform with just about everyone we do onstage, so I know why these people are that great. I ‘ve met Dee Snider and Gene Simmons and Vince Neil. I know why I tip my hat to them and buy their records. If you’re 10 or 12, I’m going to show you why Guns N’ Roses was so cool and why KISS will go on forever. Our demographic is just about cradle to grave. Elvis is going to be cool forever. AC/DC and Van Halen and KISS are going to be around long after we’re dead and buried. We’re the preservation society of rock and roll.
CV: Do you pay attention to Steel Panther at all?
MS: I’ve seen it and know what they are. They’re sort of mocking the stigmas that have come along with what some of the real hair and spandex bands were. We’re not making a joke out of it. I’m trying to show a young kid an idea of what it might be like if you saw Queen or saw KISS, and if you’re 40-60s, maybe you saw Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. I’m going to try to bring you back to the days when you were in junior high or high school and seeing these groups for the first time and feeling the impact. I just feel like we’re less comparable than people think. We’re going after different things.
CV: At any point would there be interest in developing original material, maybe similar to the path Steel Panther has gone down with great success?
MS: Our reason even for doing that type of thing would really be for our own personal satisfaction and enjoyment. We threw the one song, “Make Some Noise,” out on iTunes. That’s one of the perks of being successful with Hairball. We have the finances to do the things we love. I can buy the guitars and walls of amps that I want. Part of embracing this, I think, is that it’s sort of a bromance and bond from the days when there were rock magazines out there that were powerful. There was mystique. Radio stations had more power. People couldn’t download music for free. Everyone wanted to have a part of that dream and check into hotels and throw TVs out the window and all of that — be that crazy, party atmosphere that was fueled with the mystique. Nowadays, it’s assigned seating and so many regulations. You can see the band’s setlist on YouTube.
CV: You have control.
MS: Yes. I sat in with some Atlantic A&R guys in the studio and watched kids get bought, and I just don’t want my life to be defined by them. I do what I enjoy and create music on my own terms. Hairball can certainly do that. What I choose to do with it, has got nothing to do with what Universal Records would have us do. We do our own thing. We started with one song, and we intend to do more, but it won’t be completely a money reason. Financially, it would have been smarter for us to do a large bulk of songs at once, but we do it for the fun of it. We shoot up a couple of thousands of dollars of fireworks every show because it’s fun, and we want to.
CV: Do you look at other acts to incorporate into the show, or do you pretty much stick with your bread and butter?
MS: It evolves all the time. Sometimes we do Ratt, sometimes we do Whitesnake. It’s just hard to fit everything into a two-hour show. We try to stick with the things that are the most visual. While Night Ranger and Tesla have great music, nobody dresses up like Tesla for Halloween. The personas and characters we do, as soon as they walk around the corner, you know who they are and they’re timeless. They’ve got their logos burned in your brains.
CV: Have you ever tried anything that didn’t go over and had to take it out of the set?
MS: There’s never been anything that really didn’t hit. Sometimes you try things and it may not seem like it fit, but a Hairball show works from the minute the intro tape rolls and the curtain drops. I don’t care if Hairball got up there and played The Carpenters, we’d find a way to make it work. Part of our plan is not have too much of a plan. What we’re really good at is capturing the emotion and spirit.
CV: Do you think it’s a benefit to be able to present some of these bands that no longer have the original singer and people who didn’t see them back in the day, this is the closest they’ll get?
MS: For sure it is. There was nothing like seeing KISS during the late ’70s. It was a time and a place as much as it was them. It was dangerous. Van Halen is still a great show, but imagine them in their late 20s when they were finding their way. I’m not going to play new Van Halen or KISS for you. We’re playing the music that broke ground for everybody with ears and eyes. Freddie Mercury isn’t with us anymore, so you’re not going to see Queen with Freddie Mercury. We get to live out that fantasy and get together and remember why he was one of the greatest singers and performers in rock and roll history. It was during that magical period when MTV used to play videos by rock bands and wasn’t a TV network of game shows. I think, in some ways, the Internet took some of the mystique out of rock and roll — the time when people weren’t just sitting on Facebook, and were face to face meeting each other. I’m just glad that I was alive during the hay-day of arena rock.
CV: So was that era the pinnacle of rock and roll?
MS: I’d say so. Every kid want to play guitar, everybody wanted to live out the fantasy that landed most of these bands in rehab. They’d smash up sports cars that are worth more than most people’s homes. All of us kind of wished we could do that. The world now, I suppose, is a little more responsible, a little more regulated and probably for good reason. We’ve learned the lessons of Ozzy and Steven Tyler to keep ourselves out of rehab and not put the band in jeopardy. But I still like the energy and intensity, and not have a script and not know whether this guy is going to come out of the audience and drag somebody else up there with them. I still like surprises that are that kind of rock and roll.
CV: The Iowa State Fair shows are coming up. They’re always very well attended, and people have a great time. Is there anything about the Des Moines audiences that you look forward to playing to?
MS: Oh, it’s one of our favorite shows of the year. I feel like Des Moines is one of the markets that Hairball, when we first started doing big numbers, it was one of the cities that led the way. Some of our most favorite times in our development unfolded there. We’re been playing the Fair since the first day of the band until now. And every year it seems to get bigger. And we are bigger now. It went all the way from some guys traveling in cars with costumes in garbage bags to a fully loaded semi-truck and tour bus. It’s my dream and it’s my joy to have all these big weapons in the show and to stand in the middle of it. There are so many people who are like us and want to see this. I used to sneak in at the St. Paul Civic Center to watch Van Halen set up every year because I wanted to see what their light show was going to be. That’s still alive in me today. Hairball, we’re very fortunate to do what we love doing. The hardest part is the travel and the hours. The shows and the meeting people and seeing the places, that’s the fun part. I look fondly at all of it. All the way from the high school talent shows to where I am now. Paying dues just didn’t seem like paying dues to me because I had a good feeling that I was a part of something that I wanted to be a part of desperately, and I could never imagine being anywhere else.
CV: It sounds as though you can safely say, at the end of the day, “I made it.”
MS: When I was with my career counselor in junior high, it was, “What do you want to do?” My initial goal was to be a professional guitar player. It was only all those years later that I realized that as much as I loved playing guitar and incredible guitar players, I had to admit to myself that I like rock shows and these shows that impacted me. I’m lucky to be part of a group that gets to perform and play and do all the things that I loved when I was a kid. I’m going to define it as success. I met Paul Stanley and thanked him for the motivation that he had given me. He called me successful. I told him he inspired me to appreciate the work. I just enjoy being able to pursue it. And he said, “That’s the thing. Level of success at what you achieve maybe isn’t as important as just being able to play the game that you love.” If it all ends to day, I would consider this a huge victory. Hopefully it continues long after I’m gone and there’s going to be a 20-year-old kid in Hairball someday, and people are going to appreciate this, just like they continue to appreciate Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. CV