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C.C. DeVille

Back, Buff, and Ready to Rock
 
is Back, Buff, and Ready to Rock

One of the most anticipated rock shows of the summer of ’99 was the Poison reunion tour, which brought back together singer Bret Michaels, bassist Bobby Dall, drummer Rikki Rockett, and guitarist C.C. DeVille – the group’s four original members. The original lineup split following the release of Swallow This Live in ’91, and had not performed together since.

After the split, Poison continued without DeVille, replacing him with Ritchie Kotzen and releasing Native Tongue in ’93. That lineup was short-lived and he was replaced by Blues Saraceno. However, with grunge, techno, and rap on the rise, and declining interest in ’80s-related music, the transition into the ’90s was not easy for Poison. The album recorded with Saraceno was never released and the group went on hiatus.

Years may have passed, but the original members of Poison still had a soft spot in each of their hearts for the music and their friendship. It wasn’t preposterous to think that one day fate would offer them another chance to work together. It was Dall who took the first step in bringing them together for a summer tour. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Audiences across the U.S. proved hungry for America’s ultimate party band, making the tour one of the summer’s top-grossing. The group put together a 90-minute set that included all of its greatest hits and concert favorites.

Now fully-recovered from his indulgence in the excesses of the ’80s, DeVille has claimed his sobriety and emerged looking like a new man. Buff and toned, he has dedicated hundreds of hours to improving his physique and honing his chops.

In the ’80s, mainstream guitar mags focused on players with berchops, and generally discredited DeVille. But this time around his playing is being critiqued by new audiences – and he’s receiving the credit he deserves. And while it was obvious Poison fans missed him, the band may have missed him most.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he exclaims. “I had it all at one time, but I don’t think I was ready or able to handle it. Now, I’ve been given a second chance, and I’m not taking any of it for granted.”

Settled in at home, DeVille spoke candidly with Vintage Guitar, revealing how his attitudes toward music and life have changed, and discussing the past, present, and future of Poison and his solo band, the Stepmothers.

Vintage Guitar: How does Poison in ’99 compare to Poison in the ’80s? What’s different about the relationships between band members?

C.C. DeVille: This time around, because of what happened, everyone’s egos has disappeared. In that respect, the band is getting along much better now than we ever did. I think that’s because we hadn’t really done anything together in the ’90s, so we all came back to Earth a bit, which was pretty important.

What’s different about the way audiences are responding to the music?

I really didn’t know what to expect. I figured a lot of our diehard fans would come to the shows, but I wasn’t sure what it would be like. I was very pleasantly surprised not only by their appreciation of the music, but at how the fans supported me in my sobriety. After the shows, a lot of people went out of the way to tell me they thought it was good that I was back in the band, but it was even better that I’m sober. The fans seemed more concerned with how I was doing as a person, rather than in C.C. DeVille, the character in the band.

So the reaction from the audience turned out to be very good. Even the magazines that used to be so hurtful haven’t reacted that way. I don’t know if it’s because it’s been 10 years and they think of me as a nostalgia act who’s not a threat. Now it’s just okay for them to say that I’m “alright.” But it certainly wasn’t like that 10 years ago. I think people can appreciate things more in hindsight, and the bands with hits will sustain over time.

How did the Poison reunion come about?

Bobby called me a few years ago and asked what I thought about getting back together. At the time the band wasn’t doing anything and I had just gotten sober, so I thought it was a good idea. Then he called me a year later and said he was still working it out (laughs). Everyone was off in different places and finishing different things. By the time we finally did get together, I figured it would be better to do a tour, instead of trying to record an album. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to actually go into the studio with the band. Writing and recording together is hard and it gets very personal. It’s rewarding when it comes out great, but it’s hell when things aren’t coming out the way you want.

What I wanted was to be able to go out and tour with songs we had down. I honestly wasn’t sure if our relationship would be able to survive doing an album. If we were to try to do an album first, and then tour, we might not have survived doing the record and then we would have never toured. We were always a good live band, and playing together was always a lot of fun. I’m not going to kid anybody about that. But for the most part, I’m still not too sure if people are really prioritized on hearing something new that’s coming out from a band that’s now 10 years older than the last time they played together. When you’re doing a show, it’s better to make sure that you’re doing your hits and giving the audience what they want to hear. That, coupled with trying to make it as painless as possible for the band itself is the reason why we went to tour first. We also wanted to make sure that there was even an audience out there of people who wanted to hear our music.

How long did the group rehearse before hitting the road?

Maybe a week. With Poison, there’s not much improvising. We knew the songs, so we had to work out little parts. There are lots of pyros, so you have to make sure you’re standing in the right place, or you might get hurt. But musically speaking, the band is pretty tight.

How have your style and technique changed over time?

When I look back, I realize that from 1988 to 1991, I really tried too hard. Playing guitar was never fun. Every time I’d play a solo, I’d agonize over what to play, how to play it, and if people would love it. I was playing for the seven people who had their arms folded, and neglecting the rest of the audience. No matter what I played, the people who had their arms folded would never have liked it anyway, so all I was really doing was isolating the true fans in the audience who were enjoying the show.

But once I realized that and got comfortable with who I am and what I do, it became a lot easier for me to be a songwriter. My heart has always wanted to write songs more than play solos. When I was younger, I really loved to play solos, but as I got older, I realized it’s easier to express things with lyrics and melody. A song like “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” is a great example of fulfillment as a guitar player, but a hit pop song that might not have as great of a guitar solo is going to reach millions more people. That’s really why I started singing.

When Nirvana became popular, it woke me up and changed my life, musically speaking. It was everything I thought I should be doing. To me, it was saying there was more than one way to be great. There’s more than one way get your point across and to be respected as a musician. When I heard In Utero, I realized the genius in Curt Kobain’s writing and melodies. I realized there was so much more to guitar playing than just hammer-ons and guitarhead noodling. That’s when I started singing. I realized no one was going to do it for me and I had to just do my own thing.

I love Kurt for that. Most people don’t realize the gift he has given us and they’re still taking in the repercussions of what he offered as a musician. Just that brutal honesty, it was great. When I saw the Beatles, I knew I had to play music. Then, when I saw Kurt do it, I knew what I needed to do was to start singing, get more serious about my songwriting, and not worry so much about playing guitar solos.

Was it the Beatles that first inspired you to play guitar?

I was 13 or 14 when I started playing. I would go into a music store and see people jamming, but I was too young to be able to tell the difference between the sound of the bass or the guitar, or really understand what was going on. I just knew people were reacting to seeing someone hold a guitar and that it was special.

But I didn’t really fall in love with the guitar until later on. I had a guitar teacher for one day (laughs). I really didn’t like the way the lesson was going, so I told him to leave. I’ve never really been disciplined – it’s not one of my attributes.

What was your first guitar?

I had a Japanese Telecaster copy by Kawai. My first amp was an old Norma tube amp my father had gotten years before. I think it had one 8″ speaker. It was a good amp, it wasn’t loud enough to jam with a band.

I remember a friend bringing over a fuzzbox, and that was another moment that changed my life. Up until then, I always wondered why when I would try to play along with records, like Led Zeppelin, my guitar would never sound the same as the guitar sounded on the records. It sounded thinner, but I didn’t know anything about things like distortion, so I had no idea why it just sounded different. The pedal was some ugly piece of garbage that did wah and fuzz. I just remember that when he hit the distortion, I started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the sound!”

From then on, the fuzz box was never off. I traded the guy the guitar case that came with my guitar for that pedal. That’s what he wanted, because he had a guitar, but didn’t have a case for it. What did I need the case for? I was 12 years old and living in Brooklyn, New York, and my mom wouldn’t even let me leave the house. If I was going out, I definitely wasn’t going to be bringing a guitar with me, so I really didn’t need the case. It was a great trade.

Who influenced you as a player?

I was influenced by whoever was on “Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert.” Every Saturday night I’d watch that show and “In Concert.” They’d have bands like Thin Lizzy and Styx, and I loved watching them play. One time I remember watching Steely Dan doing “Reelin’ In The Years.” I remember that the guitar player – I’m not sure who was in the band at the time – but he had a guitar that looked just like mine. What I didn’t realize was that mine was a copy of the one he was playing. To me, it was the same guitar, so I thought I was pretty cool because I had the same guitar as the guy on TV.

How did you get from Brooklyn to L.A.?

I moved to L.A. in ’81, when I was 19, to become a rock star. I tried to play with a few different bands, but nothing was really happening with any of them. Then I hooked up with the Poison guys. I knew they were going to be big, but they didn’t really have any catchy songs.

I remember auditioning for the band, along with a few others, and I think it came down to me, Slash, and Traci Guns. I kept getting call backs, but I would never learn their songs. Slash came in and he knew all their songs, but I wouldn’t take the time (laughs). I told them I thought the songs were awful and that they had to let me write the songs for their band. They told me I was nuts because I was joining their band.

So I went home and got to work writing new songs and kind of learning theirs. We got together and within a month of showcasing, we had a record deal. That’s sort of the condensed version of what happened.

How have your choices in the gear you’ve used evolved over time?

Like everyone else, I was always searching for that tone. When you get older, you get wisdom. I should have realized that tone is relative. Everyone is searching for that magical tone, but everyone is searching for a different tone. So there is not one great tone, it’s the tone you like. But when I was younger, I thought there was just one great tone – Eddie Van Halen’s on the first Van Halen record. That was the guitar sound I always heard in my head, but I never got it.

When I progressed to a more professional level, I was using two Marshall heads and two Marshall cabinets, but I could never get a good sound with them. They were 50-watt Mark II heads and I had them hotwired by Frank Levi. For some reason, I didn’t like the way they sounded after they were modded, so I had him undo the mods.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I took the heads to a guy there. He hotwired the amps again, with the same mod I had taken out, and then he asked me if I realized he was the one who had originally worked on them in New York. Well, I still didn’t like the tone (laughs). I tried all kinds of things. At the time, Zeke Clark, who was my tech, suggested I get a Bradshaw rack. He set me up with all this big stuff and it sounded alright, but I didn’t really like it. I had H&H power amps, Soldano preamps, a Lexicon PCM 70 delay, a Yamaha REV7 digital reverb, all of the switching systems, and a brain mixer. As long as Zeke was controlling it, it worked out fine, but if I didn’t have someone there running it, I couldn’t even turn it on because there was so much stuff.

Next, I got a transistor Crate head with insane gain. I loved the sound of that amp, so I used it for a while. Then I slowly just started getting away from the Bradshaw rig and going direct into the amp, without any effects, and that was the only time I had any fun. For this tour, I borrowed a Soldano Hot Rod 100 head and I went direct into the amp with two speaker cabinets. I also had a Carvin Legacy head and I would switch between the Legacy and Soldano, depending on the venue. Once I simplified the rig, it was great.

When I first got those Marshalls, I was playing a B.C. Rich Mockingbird. I loved that guitar, and I still have it. Then when I moved to L.A. I got a Charvel Strat with flames, a Fender-style headstock, one pickup, and a whammy bar. The body was made of alder and it’s really light. That was a great little guitar, too.

Now, I’m playing a Matty Baratto Flying V, a custom-made Strat with disco-ball mirrors on it, an ESP Les Paul with a whammy bar, and some great Washburn guitars. They sent me a Strat-style N-2 and a lime green (Dime Slime) Dimebag Darrell Signature Model. That one is so pointy, but it’s great.

What are the plans for Poison?

We finished the tour and recorded the live shows for a possible live album. There’s a chance that if I come up with a really good song, I wouldn’t be opposed to putting a new track on the live record. But I’m not ready to record a whole new album with Poison right now. I’m working on a record with the Stepmothers, and that’s the love of my life. My main priority right now is singing.

What are your plans for the Stepmothers?

We performed at Woodstock last summer and the response was really good. We had just signed a record deal and I’m very excited about it. I’m taking things slowly and making sure everything is the way I want it to be. The record will be released soon and I’ll be putting most of my energy into that. I think people are looking at what I’m doing far more seriously, now.

I’m grateful I’ve had a chance to be successful doing something I love to do. You have to love what you do and that’s becoming more and more important to me. I would rather play in front of 20,000 people than 20, but if it’s 20,000 with a band I’m not happy with, I’d rather play in front of less people with a group I’m happiest with, and ultimately, with my own band.

What kind of guitar and amp setup are your using on the Stepmothers record?

I have an old Marshall PA20 head I play through a Celestion Vintage 30 speaker mounted in a Bell & Howell projector case. It’s a big, deep cabinet with the one speaker and it gets a thick sound. I also have a 1960 Gibson Melody Maker, my favorite guitar. It’s got a single P-90, and it’s just got the sound. Also, Henry Vaccaro made me a great new guitar that I really love.

Do you have a home studio to make demo recordings?

I don’t have a home studio and I don’t really make “demos.” I just use a cassette recorder – I keep it as simple as possible and just get ideas down on tape. With a home studio, by the time you get the setup and all the sounds and levels right and you’re ready to record, the idea is gone. When I have an idea, I get out the cassette recorder. My magic has never been from my technique, it has always been from my spontaneity – the live feel and the aggressiveness of it. I’d rather be onstage than in the studio.

Which guitar players do you enjoy listening to?

I love Eric Johnson because he took an instrumental song and made it into a hit. I like all the classic guys, like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eddie Van Halen. But I also love Kurt Cobain. I really learned a lot from him.

When I was younger, I liked all of the guitar gods, but as I get older I realize there are things I like about music that aren’t as over-the-top in terms of technical guitar playing. For instance, the Offspring songs where Noodles plays some of these corny things, or in the song by Lit with the corny lead, or some of the Bush stuff. I really enjoy that kind of stuff now, like Gavin [Rossdale's] type of playing or even the guitar solo in Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.” I also love John Lowery, from Marilyn Manson. He’s a great player. I love guys like Jerry Donahue and Danny Gatton, too. I love that style of playing. My musical tastes are pretty broad.

Right now, when I listen to music, I really think about my career and life in segments of being high and being sober. Since I got sober, my tastes have changed, but I don’t think it’s because I got sober. Whatever the reason, I think a lot deeper than just the flashy things now, which I still love. But now, the first thing I focus on when I hear a song on the radio is the style of the singer and what I might be able to learn from him. I don’t have a classic voice, but I love to sing.

How has the role of the guitar player and emphasis on one’s technique changed since the ’80s?

Well, I think it’s a lot easier to be a guitar player now. In the ’80s you had all that false emphasis on dexterity, and players were so competitive about speed. People were just working on that proverbial sweep, while learning things like chords, intervals, stylings, and rhythms were falling to the wayside. That technical type of playing destroyed itself because it had just became like a bunch of violinists with no expression. I really loved everything about the music business except the guitar community – it was a very bitter place. There were the people who understood just one little aspect of playing – the technical side – but didn’t understand the whole picture and most of them couldn’t write songs at all, they could just play fast riffs, and they acted like guitar geniuses. Eventually, it did have to backfire because it was just so wrong. These people were good soloists, but they weren’t well-rounded musicians or songwriters. Of course, not everyone was one-sided, but there were more guitar players just noodling around than players who actually had any real soul. Fast, technical players were a dime a dozen.

In the ’90s there was a backlash and the “anti-guitar heroes” became the guys in the forefront, because there was no substance in all that noodling. In the late ’80s, you’d have all these young kids doing technical solos, but not really knowing how to play the guitar with any feel. That was taken as the rule for a while, and that was what was happening when Poison became popular, so it was very difficult for me as a guitar player. Some people love to play like that, but I can’t – I’m a song guy. Early in my career, I tried to play like that. I would love to play like Yngwie, but I just don’t have it in me.

How do you want to be remembered in the guitar history pages?

Just as a stylist – someone who wrote cool licks and had cool ideas. I like my signature riffs, but it’s very difficult for me to talk about my guitar playing – I get so cynical and oversensitive. I feel there’s always a dig or some kind of sarcasm waiting around the corner. The guitar press wasn’t kind to me when Poison was at its peak. So that’s the one thing I don’t like to talk about. I just got so much abuse and it just puts me in such a bad place.

Where would you like to be in five years?

I love writing songs. I would love to have a Top 10 song that I’m singing on. That would really be important. I want to try to validate myself as far as my musical ability, which is not just guitar playing and technique, but the whole musical picture. I owe it to myself to write great songs because there’s so much more to music than being a technical guitar player. I know it sounds like sour grapes, and for the longest time, it was. I really felt liberated by Kurt Cobain, just as I may have liberated players who weren’t going to be the next Joe Satriani, and just like Ace Frehley liberated me when I started playing.

Rock and roll was invented for people who didn’t play music. Then in the ’80s, people were going to school to learn how to play rock and roll, which seemed totally backward. Rock and roll is supposed to be a rebellious thing, based on gut feeling. Then people were going to places like GIT and defeating the whole reason for not having all of that schooling and discipline. I am so glad that phase is over. Most of your guitar heroes probably didn’t study music in college, anyway. I like to create music, but I don’t like to study it.

What advice do you have for others trying to establish their own identity as a player and songwriter?

You have to be aware of your shortcomings. I know I’m not as good as so many other guitar players, but I still think I have something valuable to contribute. Everyone has a predisposition for a particular style of playing and you have to focus on what you do best. You know if you’re good, and if you’re smart you know where you should be. But it’s often very difficult to get there and it usually does take a great deal of persistence, as well as confidence and luck, to find success in the music business.

But one of the most important things I’ve learned is that no matter how great the guitar is, the voice is always going to be the supreme instrument, no matter what. The guitar is always going to be second fiddle, unless you’re Jeff Beck. But again, that’s a very limited audience. You can bring 10 people in a room and maybe only five of them will appreciate Jeff Beck, while everyone will appreciate Elvis Presley. And it all has to be honest. You have to love what you’re doing and believe in the music you’re playing.



Photo: Lisa Sharken. C.C.DeVille onstage with Poison, summer of ’99.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’00 issue.

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