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An All-Star Revisiting of the HEAR ‘N AID Charity Single “Stars”

Recorded at A&M Records Studio in May 1985, “Stars” was helmed by Ronnie James Dio to help raise money for famine relief in Africa.

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When you think of singles recorded for charity, you most likely think of hits like “We Are The World,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Voices That Care.” But for heavy metal fans in the 1980s, there was a more resonant charity recording in “Stars” by Hear ’N Aid. Featuring members of dozens of key hard rock bands — Judas Priest, Queensryche, Dio, Journey, Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister, Dokken and Iron Maiden included — “Stars” is full of higher-register vocals, guitar-shredding and quotable lyrics.

Recorded at A&M Records Studio in May 1985, “Stars” was helmed by Ronnie James Dio to help raise money for famine relief in Africa. While “Stars” is what most people think of when the name Hear ’N Aid is mentioned, “Stars” was only one song on the project’s compilation album; then-unreleased tracks from KISS, Motörhead, Rush and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were also included. “Stars” was also featured on a documentary, Hear ’N Aid – The Sessions, a home video release. Ultimately, Hear ’N Aid raised $1 million within a year of release.

While the Hear ’N Aid video and album have been out of print for decades, they are still remembered with fondness by a lot of people. Happy to offer memories about “Stars” were a variety of personalities, including six musicians who performed on the 1985 classic:

Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma
• Y&T singer and lead guitarist Dave Meniketti
• Former Dokken (and current Foreigner) bassist Jeff Pilson
• Rough Cutt guitarist Chris Hager
• Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali
• Former TNT vocalist Tony Harnell
• Bowling For Soup frontman Jaret Reddick
• Singer/songwriter (and Verve Records A&R guy) Mike Viola
• Producer and singer/songwriter Linus Of Hollywood
OK Go drummer Dan Konopka
• Nerf Herder drummer Steve Sherlock
• Comedian, author and Valley Lodge frontman Dave Hill
• Longwave and Hurricane Bells singer Steve Schiltz
• Iridesense guitarist/vocalist Rick Eberle
• Singer/songwriter Lucy Woodward
• Music licensing specialist James Lance
• Actor and Common Rotation singer Adam Busch
• Killingsworth Recording Company CEO and Diffuser frontman Tomas Costanza
• Porter Block frontman and In A State host Peter Block
• Lojinx owner Andrew Campbell
Metal Sludge editor Gerry Gittelson
• Sea By The City blogger Anthony Dalto
Analog Spark label head Mark Piro
• Veteran A&R executive Stu Fine

Check out “Stars” by Hear ‘N Aid:


How would you describe “Stars” to someone who hasn’t seen or heard it before?
Tony Harnell: An 80’s hard rock “We Are The World.”

Jaret Reddick: I always describe it as a “hair metal ‘We Are The World.’” I guess that doesn’t do it justice, because Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and such aren’t hair metal. Also, and I mean this with the most respect possible, what the hell were Blue Oyster Cult doing there?!

Linus Of Hollywood: “Stars” was like the “We Are The World” of the heavy metal world. It was a song for charity that featured a veritable who’s who of the metal world. Like most things metal, it was awesome and it was silly.

Steve Sherlock: It’s a smorgasbord of well-balanced, metal madness. Eat it up…but try to avoid getting any hair stuck in your teeth.

Tomas Costanza: The ultimate culmination of the most iconic heavy metal artists the world has ever known.

Mike Viola: Even if you don’t like metal, hard rock, or hair metal, you’ll enjoy this tribute for its chaos and confusion alone. Is this for famine relief? Or just a cry for some metal attention in the night?

Steve Schiltz: ”Stars” is on one hand, a heavy metal version of “We Are The World” or Band Aid, dedicated to help relieve famine in Africa. “Stars” is also a ridiculous gathering of heavy metal talent and egos in the mid 80s, with varying questionable involvement. Was Vince Neil there to satisfy a parole/community service requirement for his role in Razzle from Hanoi Rocks’ death? Does it matter?

Check out behind-the-scenes footage from the “Stars” session:


James Lance: On the surface, musically, it’s classic solo-era Dio in various levels. Musical composition, rhythm, key, lyrics — it’s all the hallmarks of that Holy Diver/Last In Line-era. As for the “Stars” video, oh, where to begin. You know how Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years encompasses all the so wrong/so right touchstones of 80s rock/metal/scene/excess? Why sit through a feature-length when you have it ALL and THEN SOME in a video under seven minutes…Geez, I could do 15 minutes of dynamite material on <Geoff Tate’s hair, sunglasses and white jumpsuit ALONE. Neal Schon’s guitar faces? Boom, another 10 minutes of bits. [Kevin] DuBrow just absolutely committed and going for it all the way on the vocal delivery — YES!

Dave Hill: It’s kind of like “We Are The World” and Band Aid only with way more guitar solos, hair spray, and — I’m guessing — cocaine. Also, Dio was there, which instantly makes it the best charity music thing that has ever happened ever.

Mark Piro: Heavy metal’s answer to “We Are The World.”

Adam Busch: It’s like Spinal Tap, only they are not kidding.

Lucy Woodward: A healthy smorgasbord of male vocalists who all think, but not say, this: “Oh yeah, he hit that note? Well, I’m gonna hit THIS note!” But ya know, for charity.

What is your favorite part of the “Stars” song?

Linus Of Hollywood: Geoff Tate’s first line always cracks me up: “We are calling you, calling youuuuuuu.” So over the top and so Geoff Tate. He kinda looks like a rooster in the video. I also like the five-minute guitar solo where they put Buck Dharma in the same room as Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

Steve Schiltz: It’s obviously a toss-up between Geoff Tate’s verses and George Lynch’s guitar breaks — Mr. Insania vs. Mr. Scary!

An interview with Ronnie James Dio from MuchMusic:


Jaret Reddick: That is a tough one. I am fairly good at impressions, so I can pretty much sing the song and mimic everyone’s voice. I would say it is a tie between Geoff Tate’s “We are forever you and IIIII-HiiiiHiiiiiieeeeeyyyy” and Paul Shortino’s “Forever we will Shi-hiiiine YEAHHHHH.”

Mike Viola: When Paul Shortino sings “and we all want to touch a rainbow.” Painfully sad and kind of gross.

Lucy Woodward: Paul Shortino singing “and we all want to touch a rainbow” in the second verse. SUCH conviction. I believe him.

Tomas Costanza: I never knew who Paul Shortino was until I heard this song. I absolutely love his vocals on this track. I think his style and delivery shine through most of the other vocalists. I also feel like Don Dokken and Geoff Tate have unique vocal performances as well.

Rick Eberle: The look in Kevin DuBrow’s eyes, and of course the hero worship of Dio.

Peter Block: My favorite part of the song is the face-melting solo section where every lead guitar player from each band gets a chance to melt your face with hyperbolic scales and tone. Interesting to see all Stratocasters and strat-type guitars. Not a Gibson in the whole bunch.

Steve Sherlock: When I was a teenager, it was all about the guitar solos. My friends and I would have endless debates on who had the gnarliest lead part. I always favored George Lynch’s leads. Now, as a “grown-up,” I lean more towards the fact that Dio was the mastermind behind the project, and the song was unmistakably his. It was truly crushing when the world lost Ronnie.

Dave Hill: Whenever Dio sings is awesome, of course, but the guitar solos are pretty incredible. I’m glad all the shredders could set aside their differences and rip some sweet solos together in the name of starving children and stuff, if only for a day. I’m still a little disappointed that Warren DeMartini from Ratt wasn’t there, but if I remember correctly they let Yngwie rip two solos, which kind of makes up for it. “Here you go, starving children — this one incorporates Paganini!”

A 2010 Manitoba tribute to “Stars”


Andrew Campbell: Retrospectively, the incredible amount of earnest vocal vibrato and the hilarious guitar solos.

Mark Piro: The guitar solo. Particularly the feeling that it should have been over a long time ago, and yet it keeps going.

Anthony Dalto: The guitar solos. The way music in general has evolved, we will never have a guitar ego showcase like this again.

What about the video? Is there a highlight for you?

Andrew Campbell: I didn’t get to see the video at the time as it wasn’t widely accessible in the U.K.; very few homes had MTV. Looking at it now, I remember how much I longed for such awesome hair. It’s the most 80’s metal thing you will ever see.

Dan Konopka: My favorite aspect of the video is the behind-the-scenes view of them recording the song in the studio. Each guy getting their sound, twisting amp dials and finding their voice. I love old Hollywood recording studios. I wish I could’ve been there to watch these guys cut solos. They’re rock pros!

Anthony Dalto: Michael McKean, who played David St. Hubbins in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Just seeing him in the middle of the crowd wailing away just makes me so happy.

Jaret Reddick: I had the making of “Stars” on VHS. So I love how it is cut together for just random stuff happening throughout the day. It’s pretty amazing to see Spinal Tap on there in character. But I think the long version with guitar solos has to be the best bit.

Steve Sherlock: My favorite video part was actually from the making-of VHS called, The Hear ’N Aid Sessions. It was the short Spinal Tap interview, where David St. Hubbins threatens to turn his guitar into a coffee table after hearing Yngwie play. Hubbins then quips about how Yngwie uses his middle initial so you won’t “confuse him with all the other Yngwie Malmsteens in the business.”

A Korean tribute to “Stars”:


Dave Hill: I love the Spinal Tap cameos and I also find Blackie Lawless oddly-compelling when he appears to be giving vocal direction to no one in particular at one point. Seriously though, how much cocaine do you think was in the building that day? I also like how many dudes in he video just can’t be bothered with sleeves.

Linus Of Hollywood: It’s fun to look at all the hair. So much Aqua Net. If someone lit a match in that room, heavy metal would’ve ceased to exist that day.

Mike Viola: Just the little glimpses of anger and righteousness in Dio’s eyes across the whole video.

Stu Fine: The guitar players…and the Carmine Appice cameo.

Lucy Woodward: Delightful seeing the Spinal Tap cameo.

Steve Schiltz: Ted Nugent and Spinal Tap, in the same room, which looks surprisingly like a room that could have been used a few years later for the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video.

Mark Piro: Imagining what that group sing-along must have sounded like in the room.

Tony Harnell: What does hit me when watching it is that unlike “We Are The World,” there’s definitely a sense of competition among the performers I don’t recall seeing in Michael Jackson’s video.

A tribute to “Stars” from Kiel, Germany:


Tomas Costanza: Rob Halford looks like his head is going to explode in the group vocal scene. I actually think I can hear his voice in the higher-octave piercing through the track when I watch the video. I also love watching Yngwie and George Lynch shred. In my opinion, those two have the best solos in the song. Do all the bands go to the same hairstylist?

James Lance: Why this video is not on eternal best-of lists and a benchmark of 80s culture is beyond me. Doesn’t matter how many other 80s culture subjects there are that can be anthropologically discussed — THIS video is classic, PERIOD.

Peter Block: The video highlight is to see all those meatheads sing the two-note chorus together. The second time they sing the chorus, the note changes, and they all seem proud of themselves that they handled the simple melodic change.

Adam Busch: When it actually cuts to the members of Spinal Tap and they look less like satire than the musicians.

Rick Eberle: Every high note is a highlight.

Having been involved with the recording, what was your favorite part of the “Stars” experience?

Eric Bloom: The best part of the experience was the hang with the other musicians. Some of whom we knew, others we met for the first time, all for a good cause.

Buck Dharma: My hat is off to
Dave Meniketti: My favorite part was also the most nerve-wracking – being the first to sing the entire “Stars” song, in front of Ronnie Dio at 9:00 AM the day after the crowd-singing extravaganza. Ronnie was great and totally in control both days. It all turned out to be an adventure to remember.

Chris Hager: I think my favorite aspect of the “Stars” was the camaraderie that I — and I think everyone — experienced the day we all came together in the studio to perform the chorus line. Not only did I get to meet a few of my biggest influences in music, but there was a palpable feeling that we were all there together for a purpose larger than ourselves. There was very little ego involved on anyone’s part, and it was a unique and exciting experience. Naturally with being so closely involved with [our manager] Wendy and Ronnie Dio made the experience even more special for me and the other members of Rough Cutt.

Jeff Pilson: My favorite part of doing “Stars” was actually the only thing I was involved with, which was choir day. My god that was fun. Too many laughs to count. The funniest part was Michael McKean, who stayed in Spinal Tap character all day. He was standing right behind me cracking jokes the entire time and it was like being one of a handful of people experiencing a Spinal Tap sequel! He was funnier than I could ever describe. What a genius! And then just the camaraderie of everyone. We all loved and respected Ronnie so much that it was very smooth, organized and fun. HUUUUUGE party at Kevin DuBrow’s house afterward which went beyond the wee hours!

Finally, in your opinion, has there ever been a charity recording as great as “Stars?”

Mike Viola: “Great”? No, definitely not.

Stu Fine: Never.

Lucy Woodward: I don’t think so. I wanna say “We Are The World,” but you could never make an hour-long guitar solo in that song work.

Frankie Banali:: I can’t say that I know of many. I think that if it’s a legit project for a legit organization, it’s a positive experience for the musicians, fans and the charity.

An Italian tribute to “Stars”:


Eric Bloom: Of course Hear ‘N Aid was patterned after the “We Are The World” sessions. However, I think Ronnie Dio and his people did a great job both technically and creatively to make a memorable event. Raised lots of money, too.

Dave Meniketti: Not in rock, at least not that I’m aware of. I think Dio’s “Stars” was the biggest and most talked about. Of course, Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” was much bigger in terms of world recognition.

Buck Dharma: As for the relative quality of “Stars” compared to other charity recordings, I don’t know. I suppose it’s at least as good as any of them. I’m not a huge fan of “We Are The World,” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” “Stars” has more guitar playing, that much I do know. Certainly the “Stars” sessions and recordings will be an important thing Ronnie Dio will always be remembered and admired for.

Jared Reddick: I certainly can’t think of one. Though I don’t hate on the Band Aid song like most people. I feel like all three of the big ones capture the genres at the time perfectly. But lyrically and performance wise, “Stars” is on another level!

Linus Of Hollywood: No way! Metal rules!

Dan Konopka: I honestly can’t say there is a better charity recording than “Stars.” I think we’re due for one, but I don’t think we’re gonna get even close to what “Stars” is.

Gerry Gittelson: There will never be anything like it ever again…I hope it comes out on CD. It is a shining example of people coming together and helping others — something that should be our primary purpose in life.

A remotely-recorded, international tribute to “Stars”:


Andrew Campbell: It did seem incredibly exciting at the time…The list of names on the sleeve notes was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen!

Anthony Dalto: Music at that time was so much fun. “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en?” was an alternative one that came out in 2005, but there is something too serious about it. I wish all the acts for 12-12-12 came out and did something similar for Hurricane Sandy relief. Can you imagine a song written and performed by The Who, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones?

Rick Eberle: Farm Aid is a close second.

Mark Piro:

Alternative/Rock

The Stone Eye Singer and Guitarist Stephen Burdick Discusses His Band

The Stone Eye singer and guitarist Stephen Burdick discusses the band and their new album ‘Nothing Shall & By Any Means.’

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The Stone Eye, photo courtesy of The Stone Eye
The Stone Eye, photo courtesy of The Stone Eye

With a commendable work ethic and a certain lightheartedness, The Stone Eye has found its way to some impressive success. This year marks the tenth anniversary since the talented duo of drummer Jeremiah Bertin and singer-songwriter Stephen Burdick joined forces in their hometown of Philadelphia. Their approach to alternative rock is original and innovative. But there is also a satirical side to the band where they make sure not to take things too seriously. It’s reminiscent of the sound and general approach of Queens of the Stone Age, a band that can rock out but intermixes it with a certain level of weirdness.

The Stone Eye released their latest EP, Nothing Shall & By Any Means, last month via Electric Talon Records. In only four songs, they can deliver a compelling and diverse musical experience. The hooks are infectious, and the riffs of the powerhouse variety. It combines stoner and progressive rock with a certain vintage sludge, fuzzed-out sound reminiscent of the early ’90s. Bertin and Burdick approach their songwriting with a broad-minded approach. They are out to push musical boundaries and carry the torch of alternative rock forward, presenting classic influences to a new generation.

Today, we are joined by Stephen Burdick to discuss The Stone Eye, songwriting, being an independent artist, and more.

How would you describe your music?

Stephen Burdick: “I would describe The Stone Eye’s music as something that slides somewhere in the alternative rock realm of music. I grew up a massive grunge fan. When I first got into composing music, Alice in Chains were my demigods of how to do things. So naturally, we will always have that influence lingering. As we’ve all grown as musicians and individuals, our tastes have evolved and we are always trying to fit new influences in. So, anything from jazz fusion to electronic elements tend to find their way into our music. But at the heart of it, I would describe the music as alternative rock.”

What do you like most about playing music?

“What I like most about playing music is the emotional return, elated or depressive, that it provides when you stumble across something that makes your ears perk up, whether it be a song you listen to that blows you away, a riff you write, a great gig that you’re playing and you’re like ‘damn we are on fire,’ etc. Art in general, whether it be film, music, photography, etc, has a way of moving me, be it in a positive or negative way, that quite literally nothing else has and for that, I am very grateful.”

What’s the most dangerous thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows?

“The most dangerous thing that has ever happened to me at one of our gigs was totally my fault for being an egg-head. Essentially, we were having issues with one of our amps. The standby switch was faulty, and the amp was stuck in standby. I was trying to find a way to override the standby. And in all of my infinite wisdom, I kept the amp plugged in and powered on whilst I was poking around in the thing. Sure enough… zap. Receiving 250 volts or whatever is not fun, but thankfully, I was ok and the show went on without a hitch. I did, however, give up on the amp for the night and brought it to a repairman in Vegas a few days after the show. Trained professionals exist for a reason!”

Politics and Music. Yay, nay or what the hay?

“My answer is what the hay. I mean, I personally try to keep any political affiliation at bay when composing music. But music is all about what inspires you, right? So if you’re politically charged and are inspired by the current events of whatever’s going on… have at it! Sure, you may alienate a few people, but art has always been at the forefront of social discourse.

“My personal stance on composing my own politically charged pieces is… I’m not an expert on anything political, and there are a lot more informed people than myself out there. Hell, you are probably more informed than I am. So I tend to have the philosophy of letting the more-informed have the brighter spotlight.”

The Stone Eye “Nothing Shall’ & “By Any Means” single artwork

The Stone Eye “Nothing Shall’ & “By Any Means” single artwork

When you write, do you do so with the live setting in mind? Or do you write a song just for the song’s sake?

“So this is a tricky one as I tend to do both, or at least try to before my ambitions give in. I always have this, ‘ok we’re good, this is the song’ mentality going into the studio. Meaning, that what we play and sing in the rehearsal room is what I want the song to sound like on the final recordings… Meaning it is entirely composed for a seamless transition between a studio and a live setting. Then, however, I sit down in the studio, and the ideas start flowing out of me and I can’t help myself but add more to the existing formula. I mean, the DNA of the song stays the same, but I always find myself being like ‘Man… this sounds bare right here… maybe add a little harmonized riff? Or a little lick to round it out? Or this, or that?’ Everything fucking time.”

What is your writing process like?

“The writing process for us varies. Generally, it follows a proven formula that has been established over the past couple of years. Most tunes start as an idea that I formulate. This could be nothing more than a little riff to a completely structured tune that is 90 percent done. Then I pass the idea along to the fellas, get their feedback, and continue to shape the idea. Finally, after a bit of back and forth and refinement, we bring the tune into the rehearsal space and jam on it. Over these few hours of jamming, we may find that nothing changes, or that everything changes. Generally, though, by the end of this few hour-long rehearsal, the song is pretty much finished from an instrumentation standpoint.

“For the vocal side of things, that is a total crapshoot. Sometimes I am not done with the melody until I’m singing the tune in the studio. But sometimes the melody comes to me in the initial demo. It all depends, and there is no rhyme or reason to the vocals. One thing is for certain though, lyrics are always the absolute last piece of the pie. I never write lyrics before having everything in place.”

Tell us about your experience going it alone as an artist. How hard is it to get your music distributed, promoted, shared, etc?

“Throughout most of our career, we have been releasing music independently. We actually have had only one release that was not done internally (2021’s South of the Sun). Like anything else, releasing music independently is an evolutionary process that gets easier the more you do it as you gain more knowledge on the subject.

“When we released our first album in 2015, I can confidently say I had no idea what I was doing. I was doing what most artists do when starting out. Just throwing the tracks up online, making a few posts, sending a few terribly formatted emails to random bigshot publications, and hoping for the best. Naturally, though, you start picking up on the dos and don’ts of the industry, and start meeting individuals whose services coincide with your needs thus beginning working relationships. Nowadays, we have a little team assembled that makes everything happen. So it’s cool to see the evolution of the business side of things. It certainly makes things run smoother despite the operation being infinitely larger.”

Do you have anything you’d like to tell any fans reading right now?

“I’d like to tell our fans one thing: thank you! Without the support, we wouldn’t be able to do the things that we want to do and continuously find inspiration to work on our craft, tour, and release new music. Would we still be creatives without fans? Duh. But without your support, we would not be doing what we are doing right now. And for that, I owe all the gratitude in the world to each and every individual who supports us and our vision. Mwah!”

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Interviews

Dave Annable Discusses His Role as Zoe Saldaña’s Husband on ‘Special Ops: Lioness’

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Dave Annable
Dave Annable

From Academy Award nominee Taylor Sheridan, the espionage thriller features a star-studded cast, including series lead and executive producer Zoe Saldaña, Laysla De Oliveira, Emmy Award nominee Michael Kelly (whom we interview here), with Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, and Academy Award winner and executive producer Nicole Kidman. Special Ops: Lioness, a series produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and 101 Studios, debuted on Paramount+ last summer as the streamer’s #1 most-watched global series premiere on launch day. Special Ops: Lioness is now available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment as a 3-disc set that includes all eight episodes and over 90 minutes of bonus content, including two new featurettes and behind-the-scenes of every episode!

Lioness is a show based on a real-life CIA program. It follows Cruz Manuelos (De Oliveira), a rough-around-the-edges but passionate young Marine recruited to join the CIA’s Lioness Engagement Team to help bring down a terrorist organization from within. Zoe Saldaña plays Joe, the station chief of the Lioness program tasked with training, managing, and leading her female undercover operatives. The series is astounding and ranks amongst the best of the year. Lioness also features series regulars Dave Annable, Jill Wagner, LaMonica Garrett, James Jordan, Austin Hébert, Jonah Wharton, Stephanie Nur, and Hannah Love Lanier.

Top surgeon Neal McNamara has little information about his wife Joe’s government job. Suffice it to say she shows up at home exhibiting various states of PTSD and visits her family for small increments of time before deployment to parts unknown. Joe is a team lead for the Lioness special operatives program, managing deep undercover female operatives attempting to get close to high-level foreign government targets. The series starts with a bang and never lets up. Special Ops: Lioness is the newest addition to Taylor Sheridan’s growing oeuvre of captivating television. Sheridan’s work includes Yellowstone, 1923, 1883, Mayor Of Kingstown, Tulsa King, and the upcoming series Lawman: Bass Reeves and Land Man.

Special Ops: Season 1 Special Features:

Go undercover with the stars of Special Ops: Lioness with a behind-the-scenes look into the heart of The Lioness program, inspired by an actual U.S. Military program. Special Ops: Lioness includes behind-the-scenes episodes and two brand-new featurettes. Dive into interviews with the star-studded cast, get an immersive glimpse into the intricate world of the Lioness program, and explore the rigorous training required to make the series as authentic as possible.

  • Embedded With Special Ops: Lioness
  • Battle Forged Calm: Tactics & Training

We thank Dave Annable for taking the time last week to field a few questions for V13 Media. The audio (on SoundCloud) and video are available here if you’d prefer to hear Dave’s answers in real-time.

Can you talk a little bit about what working on a Taylor Sheridan project is like?

Dave Annable: “Working on a Taylor show is incredible. My bread and butter has been doing television my whole career. And this is just a whole other level. The budgets, cast, and writing are top-notch in their particular fields. And coming together, it feels like this incredible circus to be a part of.

“And this show specifically, you know, when you got Nicole Kidman and Morgan Freeman, Zoe Saldaña and Michael Kelly, the stars kept coming, and you just felt the gravity of the show – the immenseness of the show. It was just incredible to be a part of; I love it. And it was cool because I only saw the family stuff. But then, when I was watching the show as a viewer, I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome – they’re crushing it.’ Everybody just was really involved in the story and the spy aspect of it. And then, of course, the spy’s got to come home! It was just incredible to be a part of it.”

Neal was my favourite character on the show. You brought a brevity to the show that was very different from what it was about. You grounded everything, and I applaud you for that.

“Oh, thank you. I read the pilot many years ago, and Taylor came to me with it and it was an obvious yes, no matter what. But, you know, Neal was only in three scenes in the pilot (3-4 scenes), and, you know, that character and other shows can be very one-dimensional. He could be, you know, the sounding board when she comes home from work, and he offers advice, and then that’s it, you know? I was blown away when I opened the script for the second episode, where we see Neal at work in the hospital, what he has to do, and what he is like.

“Taylor is just so good; He’s carving out this character. He’s showing that he’s a human being, and he’s going to have his issues that he’s got to deal with. And then, having a wife who’s a spy, they can’t talk at night about their jobs. And then having to deal with kids, the everyday stuff that a normal father would have to deal with. I was very blown away by Taylor’s writing; he crushed it.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

Neal’s scenes with his daughter, especially, hit home with me. Some of those speeches were just on point – so well done.

“Well, what’s funny is that we had a rehearsal before we started shooting, right? We were at Taylor’s ranch and had the cast around with Taylor. And he was sort of hand-picking scenes for the characters to read. And he chose that scene, Neal talking to his daughter after the car accident. You know, I was reading it out loud, and I came in sort of hot, you know, and I was like kind of pissed. And at the end, he goes, ‘No, no, no, Dave. Neal’s already lost. You’ve lost, right? No yelling is going to help her.’ And he’s like, ‘This is the softest you can be.’ And, you know, he was right. He was right.

“And I think, you know, I was taking notes. It was like, shit if my daughter’s in there? I want to talk like Neal. I don’t want to talk like Dave because I would get that wrong, you know? So he just nailed it. I’ve gotten a lot of love (specifically from a lot of men) that needs to be directed towards Taylor for that scene because that’s a very challenging thing, I’d imagine, to talk to your daughter like that. And my instincts were dead wrong, so don’t thank me!”

Were you cast early on in Lioness? Did you watch the crew kind of build up?

“It’s an interesting story because I was doing a flashback season four Yellowstone episode. At the time he called me to come back to that, he’s like, ‘There’s also this other show I want to talk to you about, playing Neal, the husband of Zoe Saldaña in a show called Lioness.’ and I said ‘I’m in.’ Then I read it, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh I’m even MORE in!’ Then, it went away for almost three years with COVID, scheduling, etc. Then somebody else took over Lioness, I believe. It wasn’t Taylor, and you know, a friend of mine was like, ‘Oh, my friend just went in to audition for Neal for Lioness.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?!’ I was like, wait a second?

“So Taylor had just taken it back over, and we reconnected, and he’s like, ‘you’ve always been the guy for me – you’re the guy. Would you come do it?’ ‘In a heartbeat!’ It was a wild ride. But here we are, and I’m just so grateful to be a part of a show I genuinely loved. You know, that doesn’t always happen, so this is really very cool for me.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

Can you talk about what it’s like working on a show with so much talent in it? Is there added pressure? Or is it easier because everybody’s just so good?

“I think both. Both things can exist. You feel it for sure. You know, it’s Taylor. When Yellowstone came out, Taylor was big, but he wasn’t, you know, Taylor-Sheridan-eight-shows-on-Paramount-Plus Taylor Sheridan. Right? So then this comes, and it’s Zoe and Nicole. And so, yeah, you feel it. But then when I specifically got on set, and you act across from these folks, you realize, ‘Oh, this is easy because they’re so good,’ right? Like a good actor is a given.

“And to be able to sort of play tennis back and forth with these superstars, it makes you better. And, you know, I was fortunate enough to be on Brothers and Sisters. It was my first real big job, and acting across from, you know, Sally Field and Calista Flockhart and Matthew Reese made me much better. You learn a lot from those actors. So, you know, I feel the same now.”

What memories come to mind when you walk on set for your first day? What sticks out for you?

“Well, it’s a funny story, Mike. Because our first day of shooting was actually the bedroom scenes with Zoe and I. We had met once, briefly, before that. So it was really, it was terrible, you know? Thankfully, we were able to sort of make jokes about it because it’s so weird and awkward. We’ve got a weird job. But it was like, ‘Hey, I’m Dave,’ you know? ‘Let’s hop in bed with a bunch of people watching!’ But I think it really did bring us together. And it got a lot of the awkwardness out, and we were just able to really sort of dive in and get gritty and play this real couple.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

Do you have a process that you like to adhere to when you’re prepping for a role, and do you find it changes from part to part?

“Yeah, my imagination can only get me so far, right? So it was very cool, specifically on this show. I got to sit and study with Dr. Russell Ward, who’s a surgical oncologist here in Texas. And he was inviting me into a surgery he was doing on a 12-year-old who fell out of a tree and broke his knee. So I was able to be in the room, experience it, talk to him about having to deliver bad news to parents and find out what that’s like.

“And more importantly, what is that like when you go home? Is that something that you bring to your conversations with your wife or your kids? All that stuff. So that was very eye-opening for me. Already having so much respect for medical professionals, it’s exponentially more when you see the day-to-day and you get to grind with them. Because we’re in and out usually, we see the doctor, and they fix us. But spending a day with them and seeing the patients and learning what their day really is and how hard it is – is my favourite part of my job, for sure. Learning about whatever job or relationship that the character is in.”

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Alternative/Rock

The Narcissist Cookbook Interview: Matt Johnston Takes Listeners Behind The Music

Matt Johnston, creative behind The Narcissist Cookbook, shares insight into their music, creative process, memorable moments, and more.

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The Narcissist Cookbook, photo by Regenweibchen Photography
The Narcissist Cookbook, photo by Regenweibchen Photography

Born and raised on the picturesque island of Arran off the west coast of Scotland, The Narcissist Cookbook, led by the enigmatic Matt Johnston, has carved a distinctive path in the music scene. Fully self-taught and driven by the rebellious spirit of punk, Johnston’s musical journey unfolded through busking, playing in bars, and navigating the complexities of life. However, a dark period, including the loss of their voice for nine months and a deep dive into substance abuse, spurred a transformation. Experimenting with spoken monologues inspired by diverse influences, The Narcissist Cookbook emerged, using the guitar to amplify the power of their words.

Their recent album, This Is How We Get Better, marked a turning point in The Narcissist Cookbook’s career. It helped propel them into the spotlight. With a devoted global fanbase and a sold-out UK tour, Johnston witnessed unforgettable moments. Venues were filled to capacity, and meet-and-greet lines stretched for hours. Their unapologetic approach to songwriting lends itself to listeners seeking honest, introspective, and fearless musical narratives. The core message revolves around self-acceptance and acknowledging the parts of oneself that may be deemed too scary or vulnerable. The Narcissist Cookbook encourages fans to embrace their fears through music and storytelling, believing that true healing comes from openness rather than hiding.

Looking ahead to 2024, The Narcissist Cookbook aims for international tours and the release of a 40-minute compilation album. It will feature the highly-requested “Courtney (Director’s Cut).” Johnston is also crafting a new album, MYTH. That album will explore codependency, fairytales, and a haunted children’s book-on-tape. V13 sat down with Johnston to dive deeper into who they are as an artist and what has shaped their career thus far.

For those not familiar with your band, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

Matt Johnston: “My name is Matt Johnston (they/them); I’m a Scottish writer who fuses monologues and storytelling with songwriting. I’ve just finished a sold-out tour of the UK playing to ~1000 people across seven shows.”

What is the story behind your band/stage name?

“I lost my singing voice badly in 2015 for around nine months and started writing monologues and spoken pieces so I would have something to perform even when I couldn’t sing. But I had a bunch of voices – internal and external, telling me that it was preposterously self-involved to think anyone would be interested to hear me just talking. The name the Narcissist Cookbook was like a shield to protect myself from that criticism. I’m levelling the criticism I’m most afraid of at myself before anyone else can, you know?”

How would you describe your creative process?

“A lot of the time, my creative process is sitting down to write or record something and realizing I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing and treading water with the hope of something decent coming along to fish me out. A lot of the time my tracks are coming from pinpointing something I’m too scared to talk about. Then, I use the writing process to kick-start the emotional process of figuring out why I’m so scared to say the thing. Other times, I’m more like a frustrated painter. I see visuals, landscapes, characters in my head, but because I can’t draw to save my life, I’m left using the mediums I’m somewhat proficient at: songwriting and monologues to try and get those images out of my head.”

The Narcissist Cookbook ‘This Is How We Get Better’ album artwork

The Narcissist Cookbook ‘This Is How We Get Better’ album artwork

Who are your biggest influences?

“I love Sidney Gish’s songs. I actually managed to catch her live in the UK supporting some band or other last year after assuming she’d never make it over here. I think I was one of maybe ten people who were there exclusively to see her. The theatricality of Say Anything has been a huge influence; the way Max Bemis can squeeze meaning out of words through his performance always felt like it went beyond simply singing.

“I’m also a huge fan of both Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, and in particular, the triple live album they put out was a massive influence on how I approach writing and recording and the bleeding line between storytelling and songwriting, behind the scenes and front of house.”

What’s the best criticism you’ve ever received about your music or performance?

“Oh wow. I did have someone tell me, and not early on into the Narcissist Cookbook project either, that they could tell that, on some level, I didn’t believe I should be on the stage performing this stuff. That got under my skin because, in a way, they were right. Maybe it’s strange, but the bigger the audiences have gotten, the harder I’ve needed to work before the shows to tell myself that people are here to see me, that they’re here to sing along and have a good time. It’s not quite stage fright; it’s something else.

“For someone who has spent a long time honing what they do to get people to pay attention when people did start paying attention, I found it hard to cope with. Most nights, I get past it easily. But there was one night in London in 2022 where I had a full-on panic attack on stage and barely held it together.”

What was the highlight of the last tour you went on?

“I can’t lie, going on stage every night and hearing the room sing my songs back to me, and recite my monologues along with me, I hadn’t gotten used to it by the end of the tour, and I doubt I’ll be used to it by the start of the next one. But beyond that, the meet and greet lines after the show often went on for an hour or more. I got to meet all these amazing people who had tattoos of my work or had made fan art or fan clothing, whole jackets with hand-stitched lyrics covering every inch of the fabric, too much to recount here. And all just the most wonderful, kind people. I’m wildly excited to get out there and see and meet more of them.”

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at one of your shows or on tour?

“My show in Berlin landed on Halloween, and so I brought along this insane costume I put together a few years earlier. A character called Beanman made up of a baked bean mask, a baked bean vest and baked bean sweatpants. It’s honestly horrifying to look at. It seems to set off the fight or flight response in about 20 percent of people who encounter it.

“Anyway, I dressed up as Beanman for the Berlin show, and when I went on stage, I got to hear the cheers slowly change to groans of discomfort as I walked into view. Excellent. Ten out of ten experience. Very funny for me, potentially traumatizing for everyone else. After that, I received a whole bunch of Beanman fanart, which now lives on my wall in my rehearsal space.”

What are you still trying to figure out?

“I’m always trying to figure out what the scariest thing I could do for my next project is. With my album MOTH (2017), I wanted to see if I could get away with an album where the second half is almost all spoken. For HYMN (2019), I had the terrifying idea to base an album around one song being rewritten and rewritten over and over again. On This Is How We Get Better (2021) I’d gotten worried that my albums would fall apart without a solid concept to tie them together, so I put out something much more freeform.

“On MYTH (coming 2024), I’m playing with an idea I’ve had for a few years. It’s doing things with album structure and storytelling that I’m not sure I can get away with, and that’s always the most exciting place for me to be.”

The Narcissist Cookbook by Regenweibchen Photography

The Narcissist Cookbook by Regenweibchen Photography

Politics and music. Yay, nay or what the hay?

“My music has been overtly political from the start. I can’t avoid it because that’s who I am. Is it cliche yet to say all art is political? I feel like that’s the stock answer. Anyway, it is. Unfortunately, for some artists, refusing to take a political stance is a political stance. I make music for me, music that makes me happy and which represents me, and so my audience unsurprisingly consists of people like me. Neurodiverse people, queer people, people who value compassion and are tired of society hurting their loved ones. I want those people to know I see them, that I respect them and want them to be happy. And the easiest way to do that, the way that is least ambiguous, is just to fucking say it and not hide behind fake nothing statements like Love Is Love.

“Conversely, I want people who don’t want what’s best for my people to know I don’t like them and don’t want them at my shows or in my community. Because them being there makes my people less safe in a very real way. So yeah, I don’t hide my politics. I feel like doing that is a disservice to people who are sometimes committing a courageous act just stepping out their front door, let alone into a music venue full of strangers.”

Share one thing about the band that has never before been revealed.

“I used a sample from an… adult film in one of my tracks. Not for any particularly perverse reasons, but because it fits surprisingly well in the original recording session. When I tried taking it out it made the track feel diminished. You almost certainly wouldn’t know it to hear it. To anyone reading this, no I will not clarify which track unless someone manages to pinpoint the exact clip from the exact video.”

Tell us about your experience going it alone as an artist. How hard is it to get your music distributed, promoted, shared, etc?

“In 2024, it’s easier than ever to put your music out there without a queue of middlemen making things unnecessarily convoluted and insisting on their cut. It used to be that you couldn’t get played on the radio or even get your music in physical stores without a distribution deal or a label behind you. Now, my music is in the same place as Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift, and the same place as the person who recorded an album on their iPhone and uploaded it through Routenote or wherever.

“We all share the same storefront now, and that is devastating to the traditional music business, which has historically relied on gatekeeping and other underhanded tactics to ringfence and protect their investments. I love being independent because I am in total control of the decisions I make, the music I write and record, how I promote it, how I portray myself on social media and live, what shows I take on, etc. I don’t have a team of people all looking to get paid. The only person I need to worry about pleasing is me. That’s a very comfortable place to be as a creator.”

What’s next for you?

“More touring, bigger shows, more people to meet and hug/shake hands with. I’ve got a new album coming out this year and a compilation vinyl that’s going to put one of my most requested songs, the full eight-minute version of my 2018 song ‘Courtney’ that I’ve been performing live for the past couple of years, on streaming services for the first time. And second season of the songwriting podcast Jam Mechanics, which I host with Bug Hunter.”

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