A drummer since age 13, Simon Wright grew up on legends like Cozy Powell, John Bonham and Tommy Aldridge. He had barely entered his twenties when he joined AC/DC for the rest of the ’80s, then shifted over to Dio, the massive metal band formed by the late Ronnie James Dio, who previously lent his soaring voice and pen to bands like Black Sabbath and Rainbow (and popularized the “metal horns” gesture along the way).
Wright is currently a member of Dio Disciples, a celebration of the music and legacy of the eponymous frontman, who passed away from stomach cancer in 2010. Featuring distinguished Dio alumni (Craig Goldy and Scott Warren) along with Tim “Ripper” Owens (Judas Priest, Iced Earth), Oni Logan (Lynch Mob) and Bjorn Englen (Yngwie Malmsteen), the band kicks off their fall U.S. tour Oct. 20 at the House of Blues Anaheim in support of the new Dio release The Very Beast of Dio Vol. 2, which picks up where the original gold-selling release leaves off and includes Dio’s final studio recordings.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke with the Manchester native about his introduction to Dio while touring in Italy, a surprising AC/DC reunion that happened a few years back, and his eloquent account of the man known as Ronnie James Dio.
What kind of involvement did you have with the release of The Very Beast of Dio Vol. 2?
The main body of involvement was done by Wendy [Dio] and her office manager Dean Schachtel. It’s a retrospective of the years between 1996 through the 2000s, [representing] the albums Angry Machines, Magica, Killing the Dragon and Master of the Moon. I saw the list and I thought, that’s a pretty strong list. There’s some really great songs on there that stand the test of time, you know?
What were some of your highlights of being a member of Dio?
Oh, there were so many—I was in his band 13 years. Working with him in the studio was great, just being around and seeing how it works and seeing how things developed and evolved, that was really cool. He had a great sense of which direction he was going to go in. And I guess live, we did a show in Germany— I do refer to this quite a lot, but it was such a brilliant outing. I forget the year, you must forgive me, but it was in Wacken, in Germany, a festival we headlined, and at the end they presented Ronnie with a longevity award contribution to heavy metal, and it was just incredible—40,000 people are chanting “Dio.” He was very proud, and we all were very proud of him. Hell of a night, fantastic show.
What was your personal introduction to Ronnie James Dio?
I first met him in 1985 when I was in AC/DC. There was a festival called Monsters of Rock, and up until then it had only been in England. And this particular one they decided to put it on in Italy and Greece, I think. Ronnie and Dio were on the Italian show [which was held in 1987—ed.], and I got to hang out with him afterwards and we sat down and I was talking and chatting with him, and I just found him to be a real gentleman, a really smart guy. A great sense of humor, too,
And I met him a couple of times after that at parties, social gatherings and stuff, and the opportunity came around at the end of ’89. I got to move on from AC/DC and actually join his band, and I was very proud of that fact. It was a great time.
I read you joined AC/DC at age 20, is that right?
I was actually towards the end of being 19. But yeah, I was pretty young (laughs).
What was that experience like, and what was it they liked about you when they really could have picked anyone in the world at that point to be their drummer?
I don’t know what they liked about me; they never said (laughs). I heard a lot of drummers auditioned for that. They didn’t say who they were in the advertisement in the paper. I don’t know; something clicked. Maybe it was my height, you know? (Laughs) I’m not the tallest guy in the world, and neither are they. I really, really, don’t know. I just went in and played to three tracks, and they weren’t there—the drum tech was doing all the auditions because I think there were so many of them, and I ended up getting the job and just took it from there. They’re such down to earth people; it was great. I’ll never forget the ride they took me on.
How was your drum style implemented in AC/DC?
Before I got the job, I didn’t really change much from the way that I’d been playing. I’d mainly been playing in cover bands, only doing a couple of originals like most bands start out. But I knew their songs, and it’s just so apparent that you can’t go in there and try to change them and do drum fills everywhere, because that’s not the style of the way the band was, so I was very aware of that, even though I didn’t know who the band was when I was auditioning. I just did what I did—I went in there and they saw something and I got the job, you know? It’s a mystery, but I’m glad it happened, obviously.
In 1998 you played on Thunderbolt, an AC/DC tribute album. What kind of style did you bring to the session for that one?
If I remember right, I think I did “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” and “Night Prowler.” [It was] no different than what I’d already do…I think it would be blasphemy to play all over those songs, because I think Phil Rudd [Wright’s predecessor in AC/DC] did such a good job, you know? He’s as solid as solid can be. I just looked at it from that point of playing: you know, just be solid and just keep it pretty straightforward, really.
I don’t suppose you’d like to talk a little bit about the Flick of the Switch tour? I personally love that album, though you didn’t play on the record.
It was my first tour; that was my first tour that I did with them. I just remember the first show—it was in Vancouver, a place called Saddledome. It was so low-key, apart from the part there was like 22,000 people there. That’s just the way they worked things; they kind of made it really comfortable before I played and all. And I was under a little bit of pressure there for a show—I’d never heard that kind of noise come out of people before; it was like a jet engine. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was more comfortable than I thought it would be, because they just treated it like was a rehearsal, but with 20,000 people there. They’d give me a pat on the back and off we’d go, you know?
Is it true that AC/DC always plays “The Jack” at every show?
Pretty much every show that I did with them, if I remember right, yeah. It’s such a great song and you get the crowd involved with it, too. Back in the days they’d all pull out their lighters. It was a sight, and it was amazing. Great song.
Is there any official reason why the ’74 Jailbreak EP was released?
I’m not really sure. I wasn’t really a part of any decisions with regards to record releases. That was the record company and the original guys who were in the band.
Your first album with the band was 1985’s Fly on the Wall. With all due respect to singer Brian Johnson, his voice never sounded the same again since then. Can you comment on this?
I guess his voice did change a little bit. I think it’s still strong, but strong in a different kind of raspier way. I did notice that myself, but I don’t know what it is. It must be, just, this is what happens when you grow up and your voice matures, you know? That’s the only thing I can say, and I’m trying to be polite about this. But I still think his voice is strong, even today (laughs). He’s a good lad.
All that screaming and shouting that he did over the years has got to be murder on the vocal cords.
Justin, two and a half hours every single night, I mean, wow. You can’t knock the guy (laughs).
I thought he sounded great on the last record they put out, Black Ice. From what I read, he was doing a lot of vocal training with the producer, Brendan O’Brien, and he sounded great live.
Yeah. I saw him on that last tour, too. He sounded really strong.
I met him at his book signing in New York; he’s a great guy. I hope he does it for 100 more years.
Me, too. You’re right; he is a good guy. One of the good ones.
I’ll close the book here on Acca Dacca. Do you still keep in touch with any of the members at this point?
Not directly, no. They’ve got their thing to do and I kind of do mine. I did see them; I got coerced into going to see them on their Black Ice tour. Their first leg when they came through Los Angeles, they played at the Forum, and I went down and I was speaking with Mal[colm] and Angus [Young] and Cliff [Williams] and met Phil Rudd again; I’d only met him once before briefly, but that was cool. Chris Slade [Wright’s successor in AC/DC] was actually there, as well, so that was cool.
Would you be open to performing with them again for a special occasion if asked?
I don’t know about that. If they asked me, I probably would give it a go, yeah. That would be great; I’d give that a shot. I mean, If Phil couldn’t do it for some reason or if they asked me, I’d give it a shot.
What made you decide to leave AC/DC to join Dio?
I’d been in DC eight years, and I just needed to further my drumming a little bit. I’m not taking anything from AC/DC—they’re a brilliant and awesome rock and roll band, but drumming-wise it was a little bit straightforward, four on the floor, and I needed to kind of spread my drumming wings a little bit, just branch out a little bit. And luckily, I ended up being in Ronnie’s band, and he just was kind of like, go for it, try this, try that. He gave me a lot more free rein to experiment a little bit, which was what I really felt I needed, you know? I’d become a little complacent in [AC/DC], and there was absolutely no room for that.
As a member of Dio, you had two separate tenures in the band, both times replacing Vinny Appice. What was it like having that unique experience?
It was fantastic. The first time was a little more hectic because when I first joined Dio, the whole band was new. He had a brand new band—Rowan Robertson on guitar, Teddy Cook on bass and Jens Johansson on keyboards, and I think there was a little bit of pressure and a little bit of small worry. We sounded great, we were doing okay, but it was like a brand new band for him. The songs were still his songs, still his stuff for the new album and all, but that was the difference. When I rejoined again in ’98 after just leaving UFO—I was in UFO for three years before that, that kind of fell apart—rejoining Ronnie was like putting some old shoes on again that were really comfortable, that’s what that was like. And I went in and I knew the songs—a couple of new things I had to learn; they had created some new endings to songs and new beginnings and stuff like that, but it was just great to get back. I stayed in his band for 13 years after that. I was real happy being in Dio.
What made it such an enjoyable experience for you?
There was always kind of work to do. There was always thought behind what we were doing. There was always creativeness going on. Even when we were playing a set, at the end of the set at the end of the show, Ronnie would come in with ideas for different endings and stuff that we’d have to do the next night, so it was constantly changing and stuff, and there were new little pieces. It was very challenging, but at the same time it was very enjoyable, because you were kind of involved in the music constantly, you know, which I thought was really cool, I really enjoyed that part of it, you know? As well as all the camaraderie and stuff like that. All the people that have been involved with Dio were all cool people, so it was a great time.
A lot has been said about the theatricality of Dio’s stage performances and videos. Did you have any favorite moments among these?
Not one; I couldn’t pin down one. Ronnie was just a really great showman. We had a huge set when I first joined the band for Lock Up the Wolves. We had the bones and the 14-foot drum riser with a keyboard riser, too. That looked pretty awesome. But I think it’s just something about the way Ronnie would handle an audience that was really important—the effects were there, but he had a great way of communicating with the audience and bringing people into the show and making them feel like they’re part of it; he had a great way of doing that. That really always inspired me. He was a constant showman, you know? He was just great at it.
A lot of Dio’s lyrics were all about “we.” How did they help connect with the audience?
That was his specialty; that was his forefront. I’m sure other people will attest to this. If you ever met him, he brought you in. He had a way about him, and he was such a good listener, and he had this incredible memory. And I think all of these attributes that he had just brought out these amazing lyrics he would write, because he had feelings for other people. He thought about other people and their situations and stuff, and I think this was all a big combination that he would come up with songs like “The Last in Line” or “Invisible,” all these brilliant songs he’s done. He just has a way of bringing people in and making people feel a part of his songs, because his songs were so relatable—they could be about you or a group of people thinking about somebody else. It was just a great way of penmanship he had; just amazing. That’s not bad for a drummer, is it? (Laughs)
It’s been more than two years since he left us. If you could take us back to 2010, when was the last time you spoke with Ronnie?
(Pause) I was at the hospital. I don’t want to talk about that.
What do you remember the most about him, summing it all up?
He was just an amazing man. I mean, he was a gentleman; he was a scholar and a poet. Everybody who’s met him is just so in awe of him. He was such a humble man as well—he really understood people’s feelings, and on top of that he was just a brilliant songwriter and an amazing voice. I can’t say enough about him, it’s just brilliant. I really miss him.
What can fans expect from the U.S. Dio Disciples tour?
We’re going to be playing songs off this Dio release, The Very Beast of Dio Vol. 2, so we’re looking forward to playing some of those songs, and we’re going to be playing the classic stuff as well—that’s going to be your “Heaven and Hell,” “We Rock,” “Rainbow in the Dark.” There’ll be some Sab stuff in there, too, and also some Rainbow songs. We try to fit as many of Ronnie’s songs in there as we can. There are no drum solos and there are no long guitar solos, because we feel that this whole project is about Ronnie, so we just stick to his songs. So it should be a good thing, you know? It’s a celebration to keep the songs alive.
By the way, are you still currently doing things with Rhino Bucket?
I do things on and off. If they get stuck for a drummer, I’ll go in there. We’re really good friends, we’re good mates, so we’re always in touch with one another, especially me and George [Dolivo], the singer, because he’s a crazy Manchester United fan like me…if something comes down and they need my help, or I’ve got something going on and need their help, then it works.
Any other messages to your fans and the other Dio disciples out there around the world?
Come check out Dio Disciples. So far the audiences seem to like what we’re doing, and it’s just total respect for Ronnie and it’s a total celebration of his music. We’re not trying to fool anybody here, so come and check it out.
The Very Beast of Dio Vol. 2 is available now. Dio Disciples tour the U.S. Oct. 20-Nov. 20. For more information, visit www.ronniejamesdio.com and www.facebook.com/DioDisciples. Visit Simon online at www.myspace.com/drummersimonwright.
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