When Riot founder and guitarist Mark Reale lost his battle with Crohn's Disease on Jan. 25, 2012, in a San Antonio hospital, the remaining members of the power metal band that has persevered for nearly four decades faced a difficult decision: Shine on, or call it a day.
Reale's father had given the group his blessing to honor their commitment to the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise that same month. While there, the Thundersteel lineup of Riot played a concert one day, learned of Reale's passing the next day while docked in the Cayman Islands, and honored their fallen bandmate with a second gig on board the ship the day after that (see the SAMME's coverage in blue at bottom).
As if that wasn't difficult enough, San Antonio bassist Donnie Van Stavern, San Antonio drummer Bobby Jarzombek and guitarist Mike Flyntz of New York were left to make another choice following that voyage. Longtime vocalist Tony Moore decided to call it quits, leaving Riot to ponder if the end of the band had arrived or if they should give it a go with another singer. After trying out the likes of Cage and Death Dealer's Sean Peck, among others, Riot announced the week before Thanksgiving 2013 they would carry on with another multi-octave wonder: Todd Michael Hall.
Hall becomes the fifth in Riot's book of vocalists behind the late Guy Speranza, the late Rhett Forrester, Moore and Mike DiMeo. Hence, the band is now known as Riot V. Hall has been working his vocal magic for several years with Jack Starr's Burning Starr and Reverence. Arguably his finest work to date can be found on Burning Starr's 2011 CD Land of the Dead, while the bonus live song on Burning Starr's 2009 Defiance entitled "Evil Never Sleeps" lends credence to what he is capable of on stage, particularly at the end (watch here).
Hall, 44, graciously granted the SAMME his first interview since being announced as Riot's vocalist when he phoned in over the weekend from his native Michigan:
Congratulations are in order for getting the gig in Riot. I know it's probably been a whirlwind several weeks or even months for you.
Yeah, you know, some things are a little casual. I just took it a little slow. I didn't give it a lot of thought until the announcement went out, then all of a sudden it started hitting me a little more.
Q: How did the ball get rolling regarding your involvement with Riot?
A: Basically, in the industry, obviously there are relationships everywhere. Different people know different people. I didn't know they were looking for a singer, but apparently they had been. From what I understand, there's a few people they were talking to and doing demos with. What happened for me, I had played with Burning Starr at the Keep It True Festival in April (2013) and hung out with Bart Gabriel for a little bit. Bart is kind of like a manager for Burning Starr but not like officially. I don't even know what that means -- probably means that he doesn't even get paid (laughs). He's got his hands in all sorts of things, deals with lots of bands, knows a crap load of people, and he's real up on a lot of activities over in Europe. He has been a big fan of Riot for many years. I guess he and Donnie had been talking for years. When Donnie reached the point where he and Mike talked it out along with Bobby and decided they wanted to keep going, they also reached the point -- and I don't know the total inside story -- but Tony Moore couldn't do it anymore. They clearly needed someone to do singing. Basically, I just got an email from Bart, and he said, "Hey, Riot's looking for a singer." Bart had produced the Land of the Dead album that I did with Burning Starr, and so one of the things Bart was talking to Donnie about was potentially producing the new album that Donnie was talking about making and moving forward with. I think as part of that, Bart had shown him the Land of the Dead recording or some songs off that album, and while Donnie was listening to it, I guess he said to him, "Who's this singer?" And it went from there.
Q: Donnie informed me in late September about you being the new singer, which was officially announced just before Thanksgiving. I saw him again last month, and he said he had a CD in his car of you singing six Riot tunes, but I haven't heard them yet. Have you met the guys, or has everything been file sharing thus far with you in Michigan?
A: Yeah, yeah, it's all file sharing. I have not met them personally, although I just bought my ticket to fly to New York on Feb. 1 because we're going to practice for about four days before we fly over and play four shows we've got scheduled in Europe. I actually, believe it or not, just talked to Mike over the phone a few days ago for the first time, trying to get to know each other. The whole thing was a little bizarre because the communication was all by email, since back in May: "Well, we'll send you a couple songs off (2011 CD) Immortal Soul." When I heard the vocals, I had some initial concerns. I'm not going to say I've been a huge Riot fan all my life and buying all the albums. That would be a massive exaggeration. But I've had exposure to them for many years because my older brother Johnny played guitar with me back when I was an early teenager. He really liked that Fire Down Under album. It's what he talked about with his circle of friends. There was a lot of apprehension on my part because at first, I was like, "I don't know if I can pull this stuff off." So, interestingly, that's what I did for those three songs (Donnie) asked me to record -- Still Your Man, Wings Are For Angels, and Riot -- what I did was basically just turn the recorder on, and I did one take from the verse all the way to chorus, chorus, chorus -- and I just gave him that. Because I wanted to see if I could kind of do it in one breath. Sometimes with Tony -- I don't know if Tony necessarily was writing melodies -- but they kind of put a lot of words in them, and there's not a lot of breath space. Especially that "Riot" song. That thing just kills me. By the time I get to the chorus, my voice is starting to deteriorate because there is just not a breath space (Todd sings high-pitched: "Balalalalalalala"). I'd have to change it or do something, and I don't think the people want to hear me sing an octave lower. But what happened was after we got those three, Donnie said, "The guys like that." And I was only communicating with Donnie. Not a lot of communication. Just real short. And he said, "Well, hey, I've got a couple demos. I'll have you lay some vocals on those." And I did that. And I wasn't so sure what he was thinking because on a couple of them, I didn't listen to the guide vocal first. I would just try to do my own thing first, and it didn't seem like he was really digging my own thing. And he said, "Send me some files." Then I didn't really hear from him for awhile, but he was like, "I took them to the record label. They liked them." I was like, "Oh, really? OK!" Then I was like, "If you want me to be in the band, if you're leaning that way, we need to have some conversations like, how much touring do you have in mind?" When it reached the point where we started having that conversation where we looked like we wanted to be serious about it, I said, "Well, why don't you do me this favor: why don't you get me a suggested setlist? And then I will take those, about 17 songs, and I will listen to them all and try to sing them all." I did that, and I felt pretty comfortable other than issues like the song "Riot." The only issue I have is that I can't really leave for two months, to tour, or anything like that. And he said he didn't think that'd be an issue. It wasn't too much longer before they made the announcement. He told me back when he saw you because he thought it was interesting that you knew who I was.
Q: You're the fifth in the Riot V era of singers, and the name was reconfigured because of Tony's choice to depart the band and out of respect following Mark's passing here in San Antonio. Did you have any personal connection to those guys in the past?
A: I did not. Strangely through weird channels, kinda yes. Bryan Holland, who's the guitar player, you know, my partner in Reverence, he told me that he had met Mark and done stuff with him. So I guess in some odd way, I have a connection with Mark through Bryan. But no, I'd never met Mark. And then Tony Moore, no I don't know him or anything.
Q: I have a question from one of my readers. Joe from San Antonio asks: Do you feel pressure having to cover the songs of each of the very different singers and their styles?
A: You know, I do. I do feel pressure because actually, to let you in on some insight, band politics, Mike really wants to play the song "Riot." And I really don't (laughs). And part of the reason I don't -- not that I sound exactly like everybody -- but if somebody hits the notes, I try to hit the notes. It's hard to always duplicate everything personally live. I do want to try to make the song sound as much like the original as I can. It's kind of a pet peeve of mine when people change the melodies of songs, especially when I can tell they're just changing them because they can't hit the note. And to each his own. Some people, they clearly love to change melodies. You go listen to the Counting Crows, and that Adam guy (Adam Duritz) changes the hell out of melodies so bad on the songs, you can't even tell what song it is. And that's just his thing. I'm not saying anyone who does it burn in hell or anything. I'm just saying for my own personal proclivity, I like to try and duplicate the song as much as possible. Clearly, Rhett Forrester has more of a raspy voice on a song like Hard Lovin' Man than I could probably pull off. So yeah, there's definitely pressure on my part to do that. Guy had an interesting tone and interesting range that he sings in, but it seems like it would be comfortable enough for me to sing, so I guess I could do that. I didn't have a lot of exposure to Mike DiMeo, but the one song that we had picked -- I actually liked the song. It had more of a David Coverdale bluesy feel to it than anything else. In my mind, the most problematic is trying to sing the Tony Moore stuff just because it's high. I can sing high, but I don't sing high all the time. I tend to be more of a lower singer and then shoot up and sing high now and then. Of course, that's just what my mind perceives it as. I think other people might hear me and think I sing high all the time, I don't know (laughs). You tell me. You listen to me. Do I sing high all the time?
I don't know about all the time, but I think you might be selling yourself short because you can definitely hit those notes when you want to, it seems like.
Yeah. Yeah. With Tony, he just tends to do it a lot. Just depends on the song. That's the weird thing. You go back and listen to the catalog, and there are a lot of songs that are not really (high), like Sign of the Crimson Storm and Metal Soldiers. To me, other people might think those are high, but to me those don't seem that high. It's more like songs like On Your Knees. You know, where (Todd sings a verse high-pitched). But yeah, to answer your reader's question, I'm not scared, but I feel respectful in trying to do a good job, and you're not going to see me coming out and just changing the melodies around wholesale. Like I said, on that "Riot" song, the only way I feel like I could pull it off without damaging my voice would be to majorly change the melodies, sing it an octave lower, or do some stuff like that, and it's going to sound so much different from the recorded version that I would prefer not to do it because I would find it embarrassing.
Q: I interviewed Jack in March 2012, shortly before you were going on tour with Reverence, and he told me: "Todd's assured us that this band is his priority." Now that you're joining a third band, what did you tell Jack and the guys in Reverence as you were auditioning for Riot, and how does that affect your participation with them?
A: Well, I told Jack, "Piss off, I am out of here buddy!" (laughs). Actually, I did not speak to Jack directly on it. I didn't go to Jack and ask him for permission or anything because Burning Starr doesn't keep me that busy where I can't do anything else. But obviously, I've got a lot of respect for Jack and (bassist) Ned (Meloni), and they're my good buddies. The reason I didn't speak to Jack necessarily directly: usually in a band, there's someone that's more of the communicator, the focal point, for business. Not money business, but you know what I mean. And with Riot, it seems to be Donnie. So far in my experience, Donnie's been the guy. He's the one I'm talking to all the time, he's the one arranging shows, doing this and that. And with Burning Starr, it's Ned, so most of my conversations are with Ned. I really didn't tell 'em anything. The whole notion of me auditioning and sending in stuff, I didn't know what was going on with Riot. I didn't know if they wanted me in the band. I didn't bother telling anybody anything until Donnie came to me and said, "Yeah, it looks like we want to move forward. We're thinking of calling it Riot V. We'd like you to be the guy," da da da da da. And I was saying, "Give me a setlist. Let me make sure I'm comfortable," da da da da da. So when we did that, that's about the time I called Ned and said, "Well, Ned, it looks to me like I'm going to be announced as the singer of Riot." And I think it was about three weeks before they announced it that I told Ned. And I said, "Hey, if you're going to talk to Jack, maybe you could tell Jack for me." Jack's not always easy to get a hold of. He doesn't always answer his phone. I just thought it'd be easier for Ned. And in my mind, it wasn't a big deal. I think the bigger fear with being in three bands is whether or not fans are going, "Well, this is stupid. This guy is in too many bands." But right now -- I mean, I freaked out a little bit more because it seems like the gig offers for Riot are a lot more frequent (laughs).
Q: Speaking of, Riot is headlining the Metal Apocalypse Festival on April 4 in Chicago. Can you expand a bit on the warm-up gigs you touched on?
A: Bart Gabriel kind of helped us arrange some of these shows. Bart was just being a friend. I think what Donnie had in mind is he just wanted to do a couple shows to help announce that the band was going to continue. And then the shows are kind of billed as a tribute to Mark and as a way of kind of introducing me as the new singer and that we have a new name and all that stuff. I think it hinged around an offer to play a festival in Germany, then once that got booked -- obviously, it's so expensive to go to Europe that once you get there, it kind of makes sense to play another show or two. Quite immediately, there was an offer from Greece and then shortly thereafter, an offer from Italy. Shortly before we were going to book the tickets, there was a second show in Greece. We're not trying to do some massive world tour right now, it's just a matter of getting out and getting activity. The Chicago show, it was hard to say no because it's a chance to play in your own country since most of the opportunities to play are in Europe: "Wow, we better do that."
Q: I know it's been difficult for Burning Starr and Reverence to tour in the States, but with half of the guys in Riot being from San Antonio, is there any chance of a gig here or a mini-tour in the States that you've heard of?
A: I have not heard anything, but what you've gotta understand is these four shows in Europe are a special little deal. The goal is to get in, get the songs recorded and get an album out and then try to play some shows. The trouble that you have is if you play too many shows, it takes away from your ability to finish the songs and get them recorded. So that's why we're not doing much (live). We're heavy in the throes of recording. There's seven demos I've put vocals on already. We're trying our best to get an album done. I think the goal is to get it done at least by summer. I would assume that after that, we'll see if we can book some shows. It's kind of a weird landscape for music nowadays.
Q: I've lauded the Land of the Dead CD on many occasions to Jack and to you when we set up this interview. I wish more people would hear it. It's probably one of the best albums that a lot of people haven't heard or aren't aware of. You have writing credits on about half of it. Do you have a favorite track?
A: Land of the Dead most definitely is my favorite. And I would think I would hate it 'cause it's kind of long. But for whatever reason, I just really like it. Jack's got a really great sense of melody. If there's an extended musical part, it's almost like the guitar is singing that helps extend it out and not just droning. It's a really long, epic song. What I think made that album work is it had a cohesiveness to it. I look at the first album I did with Jack. I like that album and think it had some great songs on it, but I just don't think the focus and the cohesiveness of Jack and Ned's writing is there. I don't know how to describe it other than that. For some reason, I really like When Blood And Steel Collide. Warning Fire is a really good song. Quite a few, actually. Sands of Time is one that a lot of people like, but what's funny is that we kicked that one around for the album before that. I had been working on that one for quite awhile. I've been familiar with "Sands of Time" since 2005, basically. I was almost reaching burnout on that (laughs), but we re-recorded it. On The Wings of the Night was the same thing. We recorded that for Defiance but didn't use it, but that one changed. We added this middle section, and there's some different vocal refraining.
Q: When can we expect the next Burning Starr CD and DVD?
A: You know, the situation with Burning Starr is really Ned and Jack -- and Rhino's down the road (in Florida), so they work a lot with Rhino on drums -- but musically, it comes down to Jack and Ned. And because they have a strong sense of melody, they have a tendency to just get going and writing some words. So usually, when I get something from them, it is largely developed, and where I end up getting songwriting credit for 'em is they have a verse, and they need one or two more written. They set the tone for the song, and I just help, as opposed to a band like Reverence, where Bryan and/or (guitarist) Pete (Rossi) will send me a song and say, "Look, here's a demo. Go ahead and write all the lyrics and vocal melodies for it." So the reason I mention that is with Burning Starr, I basically wait for them to hand me something. And that's where we're in the process of being. So far I've only worked on three songs that they've sent me really rough demos on, but I just talked to Ned a night or two ago, and he mentioned that he and Jack are fully in the throes and that they're getting really close. I think they feel they've got all the nuggets written, and they just sit there and jam together and put a visual recorder in the room. Now they're trying to get better recordings so they can send me something. Actually, I was just trying to work on a song from Ned last night. So, when's it gonna be done? I don't know, man. It seems like stuff always takes so much longer on these things. I kind of thought we'd be further along than we are now, but we're not very close in my opinion. I would think it would be tough to get something done by this summer, just because it hasn't been recorded yet. If they were to hand me 10 songs next week and say, 'Get 'em recorded within a couple months,' I'd have all my stuff done for sure. Now the DVD, that's being edited in Europe. It's a live performance from K.I.T. I've seen a little private link (click on video box, above left), a rough thing of what we think it's going to be, and I think it's going to get done soon. I don't know if it's going to be a bonus DVD that's given out with the new album. But the Keep It True Festival was so fun. People were so nice to us, and I was having a ball. You could probably tell, I was smiling my head off.
Q: I have a confession, Todd: Of all the interviews I've done over the years, I've never asked anyone this, but in your case, I feel the need: Why did you cut your hair?
A: (Laughs): You know, I just had this intense desire to have short hair. I resisted well over a year because I'd been working on the records, and we had a certain look and image going. The Reverence album came out, and it was coming up on a year old, and I don't know how to describe it: "Why do I have long hair? I just want to cut this s--- and see what it's like to have short hair again." One day, I was sitting at church, and I was by myself (and decided on it). So the lady's like, "Are you sure?" She cut my hair off, and I drove home, and my wife was like, "Oh! OK." Now I'm kind of in hair transition mode where I'm trying to figure out what the hell I want to do with it. I haven't cut it since April, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what look I want to have. But I don't really want to have it down to my ass again. There's this hair inertia thing -- once you start growing it, it's really hard to cut it. I know, it's strange. And I know, there's a lot of people that are probably upset by it (laughs).
Q: And despite being in all three bands, you still hold a normal job and found the time to release a Christmas video. How do you balance everything?
A: It's tough, but at the same time, I've felt a little more stressed since the Riot thing just because I think the fans are a little more. Obviously we're going out in February, have that show in April, there was talk of a show in July, and then I've got to play with Burning Starr in September. There's a point at which I had a song for Burning Starr, two from Reverence and two from Riot all at the same time: "Write lyrics for these." And I was feeling a little overwhelmed. But for the most part, even though it sounds like it's a lot, it's not necessarily that bad. Land of the Dead was released in November 2011, and we're already two years past that, so it's not like every five seconds I'm having to write a song. Even with Reverence (When Darkness Calls), we're coming up on two years that that album's been out by the time we get to June. So far, I've been able to balance it. I'm pretty disciplined. In terms of writing songs, most of my writing tends to take place -- this will sound silly -- in my car when I'm driving around and listening to music. I can usually knock out a song, once I have the lyrics written, in about three hours. So it's not too bad. Now, those Christmas ones, those "A Cappella" things, those are more like 12 hours. It helps that my wife is a very strong woman. She's there to remind me I need to keep my end. She's not the kind of person that's going to let me walk on her. And obviously, you know, I'm a good guy, so I try to be a good guy to my wife and kids and try to strike that balance.
Q: I hear that mountain climbing is a hobby of yours. What's the highest one you've climbed?
A: There's mountaineering and rock climbing. I'm rock climbing. With mountain climbing, someone's trying to start at the base of the mountain and hike all the way to the top. Whereas with rock climbing, it's more technical climbing that you're doing with ropes. I tend to do sport climbing, which means there's bolts already established. With that, the rope is only so long, so you've got pitches that you can do, and usually a pitch is not more than 100 feet. No, I haven't really scaled up mountains per se. I don't really want to freeze my ass off and spend my night on a mountain or die in an avalanche or anything like that. I tend to be more of the rock climbing variety.
Well, Todd, I congratulate you again, and I thank you for taking all this time to talk. I've been a Riot fan for years, and I think it's going to hit another level with you on vocals. In the times I've talked to Donnie in the past couple of months, he's been very complimentary of you. I wish you the best of luck.
Well, I appreciate that. I appreciate you wanting to talk to me. I'm really excited about it. I do feel fresher because I feel there's a very big and special history with Riot, and I want to be a positive part of that history. I'm hoping I can be a great contribution and that people will enjoy this iteration of Riot as much as the other ones. Thank you for your support, and I appreciate your plugs for Land of the Dead and everything and the chance to talk to you today.
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