There’s no doubt that the second wave of ‘80s hair metal and those MTV video stars killing the radio stars were immensely beneficial to Trixter and Danger Danger. The rockin’ hair farmers may have had their own sugary sweet melodic anthems, but there’s little disputing that they rode the coattails of Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, Poison, and Motley Crue as they were burning up the charts, snorting everything in sight and pounding their livers into submission. If we’re being honest, the number of Danger Danger or Trixter songs most people can rattle off is equivalent to the number of Danger Danger and Trixter shirts you see while walking down the street. So, excuse the industry’s collective yawn of disinterest upon the news that Danger Danger vocalist Ted Poley and Trixter guitarist Steve Brown were teaming up alongside bassist Greg Smith and drummer Chuck Burgi in a small supergroup called Tokyo Motor Fist (TMF).
The shoulder shrug upon the release of their self-titled debut back in 2017 was deafening. However, if one took the time to listen to the album, it quickly became evident that even if TMF was rooted in the hard-driving, melodic rock/metal of the past, they did it amazingly well and had amassed a collection of anthemic rockers that made the album a front-to-back fists-in-the-air, drinks-spilled-on-the-floor, bikinis-at-the-beach rollicking good time. All killer, no filler, as they used to say.
This month sees the return of TMF with their second full-length, Lions, a somewhat more subdued affair, but still the sort of thing you might hear blaring everywhere from backyard BBQs and the sports cars of mid-life crisis greybeards to action movie training scenes and the mini-vans of grown-up rocker dudes. Expect a summer of muffled renditions of “Around Midnight’s” and “Decadence on 10th Street’s” sky-shattering choruses from behind protective face masks.
To salute the release of Lions, we caught up with Steve Brown to talk about the drastic changes in the hard rock world over the years, how technology has kept him busy, and his undying gratitude for Frontiers Records. We also picked a few of the YouTube comments left in response to the release of the album’s first single/video “Youngblood” and asked for his thoughts on the musings of his fans and detractors, which he did so willingly and without hesitation.
Is it true that Tokyo Motor Fist formed as a suggestion from the owner of Frontiers Records?
Steve Brown: “Yes, for sure. Danger Danger and Trixter all grew up together on the same scene and all of our successes and failures seemed to follow in tandem. Those guys are really good friends and Ted and I basically grew up together; I’ve known him since I was probably 15 years old. So, what had happened was that Bruno Ravel and Paul Laine from Danger Danger had a band called The Defiants that was on Frontiers and the label is always looking for ways to have more product out there, so it made sense. They emailed asking if I wanted to put something together with Ted. I thought about it for a little while, was able to pull in Greg Smith and Chuck Burgi and it was a no-brainer and Tokyo Motor Fist was born.”
Had you ever talked about working together before or worked together? Or was this a first?
“Yeah, it certainly was. This is what we do for a living, Frontiers offered us a deal, paid us and I’m not making any bones about why we got together; we were offered money to make a record and I’m always looking for new avenues for my creative side. I’m always working, so whether it’s working on something that’s mine or producing or engineering other people’s stuff, I’m always creating. It was a great opportunity and it enabled me to work with my good friends. I’ve known Chuck since he was in Rainbow back in the day with Joe Lynn Turner in the ‘80s.
When I was a kid I would go to the Sam Ash music store in Paramus, New Jersey and see Joe and Chuck. Fast forward to 2012-13, Chuck started playing in a Van Halen tribute band I was in and we were doing some cover gigs together. Chuck has been playing with Billy Joel for the last ten years and Billy doesn’t tour extensively, so Chuck has a lot of free time to do whatever projects he wants and he was in from day one. Greg and I had been playing in different bands together for 30 years in the same scene but had never played together, so it was like, ‘Finally! It only took us 25 years to make a record together or even play together.’ But we did it.”
When you initially got together, were you writing from scratch with TMF in mind, or did you dig out a bunch of old riffs?
“It was a little bit of everything. I’ve had a recording studio in my house for 27 years now and, as you can imagine, I have a backlog of material to last ten bands ten lifetimes. I had done two Trixter records, 2012’s New Audio Machine, which was my first time working with Frontiers. Then, we did Human Error in 2015, so I had a good relationship with them. Let’s not confuse things here: we are a melodic rock band influenced by the ‘80s and that’s what Frontiers wants. We’re not here trying to reinvent the wheel. With the first TMF record, a lot of those songs were in my vault that I had leftover and I reworked to make them fit that ‘80s melodic rock style.
A perfect example of that is a song called ‘Picking up the Pieces’ which was a leftover from my band 40 Foot Ringo, which was a high energy Cheap Trick-type of thing. The original version of that song was very much like a Green Day song. At the end of the day, I write pop songs and my material can go any way you want it, it’s a matter of how the production is. What I did with that song is slow it down and go for the Def Leppard ‘Photograph’ vibe, change some riffs around and boom you have an ‘80s sounding thing.”
What was the response to the first record like? Admittedly, I don’t really follow the melodic rock/metal scene very much, though I’m aware the big names are still big and there’s a strong summer touring circuit for large and mid-sized acts. How did your first album fit in?
“Well, there’s a huge worldwide fan base for this style of music and it’s very much guys from the ‘80s inspired by the glory years of the hard rock scene. Touring-wise, there’s no real regular circuit. TMF is one of the few bands that ever play any gigs. We’ve played seven gigs so far, which is like a hundred times more than almost all the bands on Frontiers and any other label for that matter (laughs). Most of these bands are album projects, but I made it very clear that once I felt the chemistry with the guys and when I finally got and heard the finished (first) album, that I felt it was really fucking good and that we needed to take this out live. It would be very easy to make the record, take the money and never play live, but we wound up going to Europe and playing a couple festivals and we just got back from the Monsters of Rock Cruise before the pandemic hit.
It just goes to show you that it’s real; you can see it, it’s a real band and the new record was all brand new material except for the last song, ‘Winner Takes All.’ That’s one Chuck wrote something like 40 years ago. He gave me a really crude demo with his wife doing vocals, she used to be in Meat Loaf’s band back in the ‘80s, and as soon as I heard it, it really, really reminded me of an ‘80s Top Gun or Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack. I loved it, but I knew it had potential to be something greater. So, I took it added the drop D, the Fair Warning-type guitar stuff and took it to a different place as a new version. I played it for the guys and everybody was blown away.”
In doing all new material for the second album, were you still pulling the reins or were you open to suggestion and able to let go and spread things out creatively?
“As much as I’m the leader or quarterback of the project, there was never any question that I wouldn’t take ideas from anyone else. I mean, it’s less work for me (laughs). There are some bands that do these records for Frontiers where famous guys and song writers in famous bands, I’m not going to mention any names, don’t even write any of the songs. They have a producer write the songs. If that’s not a cash grab/cop out… But I get it. A lot of people will only put ‘x’ amount of time for the amount they’re getting paid. It’s really sad, but it’s the truth and the way the business has gone.
But for me, I don’t work that way. The money is bullshit. I’ve been blessed to have been successful with Trixter, it made me money, I have a beautiful house, a good family and life is good. I don’t have to concern myself with it. I make music for my fans and for my enjoyment. As much as I love playing live, I enjoy being in the studio. One of my biggest influences is Mutt Lange, the great producer who did AC/DC and all the Def Leppard stuff and that’s what I aspire to be, a song writer and producer and I hope that before I get really, really old I get the chance to produce some younger bands and be able to take my abilities to teach and produce a great young band like Mutt Lange with Def Leppard.”
Has Trixter been hit up much about having your music used in movies and commercials?
“Oh yeah. I’m active in that because I do a lot of work for music in TV shows and films, small stuff, nothing really of too much note, but I’ve done stuff for Disney, Fox, private corporations like Microsoft, and Apple. Long story short, I have publishing people who are always working on stuff for me, but the competition is tough. I’d love to be like Ratt who have ‘Round and Round’ in a million things or Whitesnake who were in a bunch of Geico commercials. The ‘80s hard rock lends itself to that. I still get a couple cheques every year from Trixter, we’re closing in on three million records sold and I wrote 98 percent of those songs. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Ok, now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s get on to the fun stuff…
“It’s hysterical that people take this shit so seriously. I know artists who can’t even read the comments sections because they’re overly sensitive and for the people who dish out the comments, it’s like, ‘Don’t you have a life? Why would you even bother?’ I don’t get it, but it’s definitely good comedy. Let me ask you a question first. What is v13?”
It’s a music and culture website based in Toronto. Even though I don’t live there anymore, I contribute whatever, whenever.
“Oh cool! On Trixter’s first tour we ever did in 1990, the first date was in Toronto. We opened up for Stryper at Rock N’ Roll Heaven. I remember Yonge Street and we went to an adult establishment called Zanzibar. I have many good memories about Toronto. We played Maple Leaf Gardens twice, we played the big outdoor amphitheatre (formerly The Molson Amphitheatre, now Budweiser Stage) and we played the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) with Scorpions and Great White in 1991. That was a trip. The place was so big they could pull all the trucks and buses onto the field and our dressing room was half-a-mile away and you had to take golf carts to get to the stage.”
Ok, let’s do this. First comment: “The ‘80s wants its music back and Frontiers delivers again.”
“There you go and that says it all about Frontiers. First and foremost, they are pretty much the only game in town. They’ve been around for close to 20 years now and they’re consistent. When you buy a Frontiers release you’re not going to get any surprises as far as the genre of music. It’s ‘80s inspired music that has that big vocals, big guitars and a lot of it is legacy bands. Bands that were around in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, some that had big success and smaller bands. Over the last ten years they’ve been big on the super groups like us and Revolution Saints. They’re very active and I appreciate it because it’s another way to give artists, produces and writers like me more work. Thank God for them. There are other labels that have fallen by the wayside and new ones that pop up, but Frontiers is the most consistent and the highest quality. I consider them almost like a major label in terms of finances and marketing for ‘80s hard rock bands.”
Next one: “This guitarist must be a massive Eddie Van Halen fan. And why not!”
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that a guitarist is influenced by Eddie Van Halen (laughs). He’s the reason why I’m here. He’s everything that I based myself and my career on. In the beginning, I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Van Halen and Kiss made me want to start playing guitar in 1978. Then, it was all the greats like Randy Rhodes, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and then Warren Demartini, Jake E. Lee, Zakk Wylde… I love guitar and always have.
Nowadays, there’s been a resurgence in great guitar playing. My friend has a website called Masters of Shred which focuses on all these great players from over decades and there’s a real fan base for guitar-based music. I love the instrumental shred stuff, there’s a guy called Andy James who I think is phenomenal, Rob Marcello who’s in The Defiants is one of the greatest guitar players on the planet. Every day someone sends me a video of some incredible player and sometimes I shake my head thinking ‘just when you think you’ve seen it all’ you see some dude shredding on an acoustic, doing two-hand tapping while cooking dinner with his left foot (laughs). The level of guitar playing with young kids has gone through the roof and I think that’s directly related to YouTube because back when I was growing up, we didn’t have those tools. You can learn anything from guitar playing to how to build a house on YouTube.”
Next one: “Awesome, positive vibes and boy do we need that now… Great band great song. You guys should start hitting on the mainstream media.” You kind of already touched on your dealings with other media outlets…
“I learned lessons in dealing with the mainstream early on when I was about 14 to 15 from Jon Bon Jovi. He was the first guy who helped Trixter out back in the day and he was very instrumental in teaching me about how important the business side is, to know people’s names, be respectful, write notes to people, always be on top, call radio people and become friendly with people because they’re remember that. Long story short, the business end of it was very important and I was always involved with it every step of the way. I knew how to read contracts when I was 16 or 17 and I surrounded myself with good lawyers, a good business manager who I still have today. Maybe that’s why I still have my house when I know other people who have sold ten million more records than I have who don’t even have a savings account, a house or whatever. That’s a huge part of it and I learned that first and foremost through Bon Jovi.”
Next: “Love it…. by the way the bass player looks like Daryl from The Walking Dead!!!”
“(laughs) I’m not a big Walking Dead fan. I don’t really know a lot about it, but it’s obviously massive. But Greg Smith, man, he has played with Alice Cooper, he was in Rainbow, he’s Ted Nugent’s current bass player and he’s a character!”
Next: “Mediocre music video, but the song sounds good. They had something amazing with “Love Me Insane,” “Pickin Up the Pieces” and “Put Me to Shame” off the first album. Need more of that.”
“The video was filmed after the lockdown, so it is what it is. It’s a quarantine-style video and we had no choice. I think it came out great for what it is and the director who put it all together did a phenomenal job. We each had to film our parts separately in our houses with our phones, GoPro cameras or whatever. I will tell you this, the pandemic has taught a lot of musician friends of mine that they can’t rely on live performance as much as they used to and that you have to be technologically savvy. I know a lot of famous guys who don’t really have their own recording studios, they don’t know how to work a GoPro, they don’t know how to do a lot of things and it’s scary and it amazes me. I would get text messages and emails from people asking for help. I’d be like, ‘Dude, didn’t you sell 20 million albums and you’re calling me for help?’ My dad is 85 years old and he’s all over using his iPhone and does his banking online and all that and for guys who aren’t close to being that old to not be able to record a vocal track at their house or something…it’s so easy.
Back in the Trixter days we were blessed to be able to make records the old school way. We worked at some of the greatest studios, Sound City in L.A., Village Recorder in L.A., Right Track Recording in New York, but that’s when we had 250,000 to 500,000 dollar recording budgets, recording on analog tape, living in the same house. With that being said, those were some of the greatest times and there’s nothing that can take them away. To me, that’s the way to make a record, you’re all together, living breathing it for twelve to fourteen hour days, creating and working with a team of producers and engineers. Sadly, that’s long gone, but I’m thankful I’m glad I got to do it.
But I’ve been a home recording guy since 1993. I built a studio because I was never happy with my records because there were always other people in the mix and we gave them the ability to have the final say on the music and how it was recorded. I wanted to be able to control it. We all know you can make a record with four people from all parts of the world and never be in the same room. That’s the way most records are made these days. But no matter what you do, if there’s a real chemistry personally, I know how to make it sound like we’re all together. For TMF, the first record, Chuck did his drums and Ted did his vocals here at my house, I did all my guitars and keyboards here and Greg was the only one who did his tracks remotely. The new record, Chuck and Greg did their parts at their home studios but if you listen to the record it still has that band sound and it’s definitely doesn’t have the Frankenstein-ed fake sound.”
Last one: “This is doooooope! Would ya’ll mind if ah sampled the opening riff in a rap song?”
“(laughs) I would love that. I’m still waiting for Tone Loc to come out of retirement, sample one of my songs and make ‘Wild Thing’ or ‘Funky Cold Medina’ part two with it!”