Imagine for one moment to be 17 years old and having an idol in music. Imagine having the possibility of not only having a big breakthrough in the industry at such a tender age, but also recording your first professional album with your hero. Well, that’s the British guitarist Rowan Robertson, who replaced the guitarist Craig Goldy at Ronnie James Dio’s band called as we all know it, Dio and together they made 1990’s Lock Up the Wolves, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
I decided to contact Rowan for an interview and not only had I found a seasoned musician with a lot of experience in many different aspects of the industry, but also a very polite and kind man. He was a total gentleman during the entire interview and I thank him for taking the time to answer all these questions, which I know were not few.
I hope you enjoy this discussion about his career, his influences, his time with Dio and a lot more.
Thank you for being here, Rowan. I appreciate it. First and foremost, how are things going in these complicated times for you and your loved ones?
Thank you for having me. Everyone is healthy and well, thank you.
How much has this affected your plans for 2020?
It’s completely brought everything to a standstill, just like everyone else in the music business, though I am doing a fair bit of writing and recording, which is good.
Let’s start from the beginning: How did you get into music?
I started playing the guitar when I found an old acoustic in my sister’s bedroom as a young kid. I started playing it and got guitar lessons by probably age 10. I used to hang out in the music shop in Cambridge, which was in the nearest big town to me. I’m still friends to this day with the guy who worked in there; he is a guitar player too and we would sit in the shop all day and play the guitars. I joined my first gigging band at around age 15. We used to play in pubs.
What are the bands and musicians that influenced you to be a musician?
My parents had all the Beatles albums and I used to love those. My first musical discoveries were The Police and Jimi Hendrix, then from there it went to AC/DC, Deep Purple, Gary Moore, ZZ Top, Van Halen…
I always make this question for the musicians I interview: Can you name albums that you think deserve more attention?
One great record that I don’t think ever became really big is the Captain Beyond record with Deep Purple’s singer on it.
You grew up in the 80s, which is widely considered as the golden age for Rock and Metal music. How was the scene for you as a young man, growing up in that era?
The only scene I really was ever involved in Los Angeles, but the 80s had wound down by the time I got there. The Sunset Strip was still Rock and Roll, and Metal was still the big thing, but it was the tail end. I was in a big band, so it was very exciting: lots of parties. Back in the day in Los Angeles parties were always in people’s apartments and there would be wall-to-wall rockers and lots of noise and alcohol and everything else. Lots of fun.
The British and American scenes are viewed as the main scenes for Rock music. What do you think are the main cultural differences between both scenes?
I think Rock and Roll is a global fraternity, but I don’t really see a lot of differences in the scenes between America and England.
Obviously, a lot of people know you from your time playing with Dio, but I wanted to know what you were doing before joining his band?
I was in school! (laughs) And doing some local gigs in Cambridge.
You were only 17 at the time and you had a lot of writing credits in Dio’s 1990, Lock Up the Wolves. Did you have experience as a songwriter in the past?
I had zero experience writing before Dio. I told him I was concerned I didn’t know how to do it, but he assured me everything would be fine.
This year it’s the 30th anniversary of Lock Up the Wolves. How do you feel about that album after so many years?
I think that album is great. I feel great about it. I don’t think the songs were necessarily the best, as I consider Holy Diver and Last in Line being the greatest albums under the Dio name, but the album I did with him captured the feeling of the time really well and because he was, amongst other things, such a consummate craftsman, the arrangements, and the care and attention in that record is great quality, I think.
You went through great lengths to become Dio’s guitarist after Craig Goldy left the band. Is it true that you went as far as contacting the band’s label and Ronnie’s fan club?
I don’t know about great lengths, but when the record company sent me my audition tape back, I did send it to the fan club in Los Angeles
Were you convinced that you could land the job? Did you think that you being a Dio fan gave you a better understanding of what Ronnie was looking for?
I really had no hopes that I would land the gig, and I was a DIO fan, but I really didn’t know what he was looking for. I know much better now than I did back then.
How was the audition process?
I auditioned twice, and before the first one, Ronnie told me that he really wanted it to work out. Then I gave the drummer some ribbing and tripped over something on the floor and everything was fun after that, then! (laughs)
Considering that you were only 17 at the time you joined the band, did you feel out of place at times? After all, the rest of the band was considerably older than you and you were starting in the music business.
I did feel like a kid, yes. But it was a good thing because it made it so I could act clueless all the time. I only found out afterwards that I was actually being clueless (laughs).
Is it true that drummer Vinny Appice and bassist Jimmy Bain were part of most of the writing process for Lock Up the Wolves?
Yes, the whole album was pretty much written with the original Dio lineup.
Why did they leave the band?
I don’t know the reasons behind the departures. You would have had to ask Ronnie.
Do you think them leaving the band hurt that album’s possibilities, in terms of receptions by the fans?
I don’t think the lineup changes affected the album’s chances with the fans much, but I think it was a changing world and the writing was on the wall for that type of music.
Future Stratovarius keyboard player Jens Johansson was on the album. How was the experience of playing with him?
Playing with Jens, knowing him, hanging out, all of it was a complete joy. He is funny, and a really great guy, not to mention an incredible musician.
Lock Up the Wolves showed a different sound in Dio’s band at the time. Was that by design or came up naturally? How much of an input did you have?
I think the sound of the album was a result of the people involved in it. I think Ronnie guided it to be what he wanted, and he let everyone be themselves. So it wasn’t out of design that the album sounds so different from the rest. I don’t think so. In that type of music the guitar player has a lot of influence in the sound, especially a one-guitar band.
My favorite track has always been the opening song, Wild One. I wanted to know how you came up with that track.
We were at Audible Studios in Burbank, and the riff just popped out. I was really happy when Ronnie liked it, because I thought it was really good. He arranged the riff a bit with me and then orchestrated some of the changes. Well, basically all of the song, I seem to remember, because it was Ronnie’s direction.
The title track is another standout part of the album, in my view. It’s a sort of a Zeppelin-epic. Was that an influence for the song?
I’m not sure about influences for the title track, because the main riff was brought in by Ronnie, and another main riff in the song was from Jimmy Bain.
I really like the riffs on Why Are They Watching Me. I sense a bit of Vivian Campbell in your guitar playing. Considering you were a Dio fan, was Campbell an influence on you?
I did love the first two Dio albums especially, so his playing must have influenced me somewhat, though I was more influenced by Gary Moore. I wasn’t aware that my playing was similar to Viv on the track, though you are not the first person who has said that.
How was the experience of making music with Ronnie? Do you think your admiration for his work helped you in the writing process?
Writing with Ronnie was an amazing experience, and I wish I could have done it more. I don’t think my admiration for his work affected the writing process.
I have talked about some of my favorite songs in the album, but I would like to know some of your favorites.
I don’t have any real favorites, as the whole record seems like one thing to me.
Do you feel that Lock Up the Wolves came out in a time where that type of music wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have?
It certainly came out at a time when popular opinion went against that kind of music in a big way. But that’s how things go!
How was the tour promoting the album? Any interesting anecdote?
The tour was great. I think it was a good time for everyone and a lot of fun was had. The bus driver, this big jolly Latino guy, was always laughing, and Willie Fyffe, Ronnie’s assistant, used to look at him stone-faced and frustrated and say “Louie, would you CHEER UP!!!” Of course, this made him laugh more.
Is it true that you guys recorded material for a follow-up album, but that was put aside because of Ronnie’s reunion with Sabbath?
No, that’s not true. I went to Ronnie’s house two or maybe three times and we kicked around a couple of guitar riffs and ideas. That was it.
Was the end of that lineup complicated for you? Ronnie never considered you to get Dio back together after Sabbath?
Ronnie did get Dio back together after Sabbath. He never asked me to join. I don’t know, had I been freer he may have, but he did not. I had a deal on Atlantic with my own group at the time. When Ronnie put Dio on ice, I didn’t feel terribly freaked out, but I think it probably was a bit of a change for me.
You then formed a new band with former Lynch Mob vocalist Oni Logan, Violets Demise, but your album never came out. What can you tell us about that?
The album with Oni never came out. The record company offered us a release date, and we should have jumped on it and taken it, but there was some disagreement about editing a single, and they dropped us. It is really a great record, if you like that sort of thing. It’s not for everyone. It’s very serious and dreamy.
How was the writing process for that album? Did you have a lot of creative input?
Most of the songs would start from a musical idea, mostly a guitar part. Then we would jam the out in a rehearsal room, record and look for other sections, which were complementary. Oni really helped draw the best out of me. As far as my input, it was mostly written by the two of us, then arranged in the room with everybody giving input, and sometimes new musical parts.
What did you during the rest of the 90s?
When Violets Demise ended in ’94, I didn’t get into another good touring situation until ’98 when I joined a group called V.A.S.T. I recorded on the second record, Music for People.
Around 2005 you stated that you were working with Finnish bassist Marko Pukkila in a project called Wicked Outlaw. Whatever happened to that project?
It was one of those things that was talked about, but never happened. If I did promote it, that was stupid of me.
What can you tell us about your time with Bang Tango?
I did some gigs with Bang Tango, I get along really well with them. They were great records, their first two or three records but I had nothing to do with them. There is a real cult following for their stuff. We had a lot of fun on the road.
You also played in a Black Sabbath-Dio cover band of sorts, called The Southern Cross, with former Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nicholls and vocalist Nils Patrik Johanson. How did it feel to play Dio songs after so many years?
I was asked to go over to Norway and do a few gigs, and I did it. I get along really well with Henrik, who put the whole thing together. He has a really great band in Norway called Hex A.D. It was great to see the love for Ronnie in all the fans when I did the Dio thing.
You have played in so many projects throughout the years. How has that shaped you as a musician?
As a guitar player, whenever I get involved in a new project, my playing style changes to suit the music.
For those that perhaps have lost track with your career, what have you done in recent years?
Most recently I have been playing guitar in a Las Vegas show called Raiding The Rock Vault. It has given me fantastic opportunities, and it has also allowed me to play with some incredible talent. Robin McAuley, Howard Leese, just to name two. Both of those guys are masters at what they do and I’ve learned a lot, especially from Howard.
Raiding The Rock Vault’s rendition of Toto’s Hold the Line, with Rowan on guitar.
Considering all your past experiences in the industry, do you have any preferences in the types of projects that you want to work with?
Now, I feel that I really only want to do my own thing. Obviously a great gig is a great gig, and if I was offered something that made sense to me, I would go for it.
Do you have a dream project that you would like to do?
I am doing it, whenever I record something I have written!
There are have been a couple of Dio tribute bands with former band members of his, such as Dio Disciples and Last in Line. Would you be interested in working with them?
If Wendy Dio asked me to step in and do some shows with Dio Disciples, I would of course do it. She brought me out and gave me my break and I will always be thankful for that.
One of Rowan’s videos in his YouTube channel.
After all these years, what goals do you have in the industry?
My goal in the industry is to make great music, and play with great players, and enjoy it.
Thank you for answering all these questions, Rowan. I know it’s a lot, but I appreciate it. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media and buy your albums?
I would like to say hello to the readers. Thanks for reading and if they would like to look on YouTube, I am posting some videos on my channel. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Dio’s Born on the Sun live at Dortmund in 1990.