“What counts is what resonates with the people, what fans like. If I can identify with what you’re playing, it hooks people.”
Co-written by Anita Malloy and Steve Pinkerton.
Once in a while the metal gods junk-kick the universe at just the right time. The perfect event happens at the perfect time and the rest of the cruft just stays out of the way.
Such is the case with our Halloween Special interview with one of the metal gods, bass player of Metal Church, Steve Unger. There really isn’t a more apt term: the man tours and plays in four bands, manages his sons’ band, yet still keeps his legendary sense of humor and sanity about him.
Speaking of immortality, this interview was special in one other way: a past fan who is no longer with us had the opportunity to be present for the interview. Mike Hollis was a dear friend who shared our passion for the band Metal Church, in particular the cuts “Start the Fire” and “Ton of Bricks” from the albumThe Dark.
This interview commemorates a very special day for us and is also a tribute to one of Metal Church‘s biggest fans. Please enjoy excerpts from our 10/30/19 interview…
Anita Malloy: Hi Steve, this is Anita from The Metal Channel. How are you doing today?
Steve Unger: Doing good!
Anita: THE Steve Unger, right?
Steve U: Last time I checked!
Anita: Do you have time for 13 questions? We’ll explain the significance at the end, it’s meaningful.
Steve U: Absolutely, my time is yours right now.
Steve Pinkerton: We definitely appreciate it Steve. We know you just played the MegaCruise, what was that like? Also, what was it like seeing Sin Circus, seeing your sons playing with David Ellefson of all people?
Steve U: Well for starters, the MegaCruise was awesome, as are most cruises that I’ve been on. We’ve done 5 or 6 now, a couple for 70,000 Tons, a couple on Monsters Of Rock, we just did the MegaCruise, which was the first cruise this year. So hopefully they’re going to continue on and do another one next year.
All in all, cruises are awesome man. I’m on a boat with a bunch of friends, musicians in other bands, we pretty much all know each other. Usually we’re passing each other back stage as one’s leaving the stage and one’s going, we high five each other, “Hey man, good to see you, etc”. But I’m on a boat, I get to hang out with my friends for five days, each band has to play two sets. So I do my two sets, the rest of the time it’s doing question and answer things for the fans. When not on stage or with fans, there’s time to just relax and enjoy. When I’m off the boat, for example down in Mexico, I walk around, do a bunch of shopping. While I’m on the boat, I get to eat, drink and watch all the other bands play their sets. The fans are thrilled because they can walk up to me while I’m watching other bands and talk to me. Ask me questions that a lot of people don’t get to just come out and ask. I get to sit in a lounge watching other bands play, sign things for the fans, take pictures, it’s great. Everybody has a great time.
Steve P: That sounds like a blast! We’ll have to keep our eyes open for the next one, that sounds like something we’d love to go on ourselves!
Steve U: As far as Sin Circus playing with David Ellefson, that was amazing! That actually happened here while David was on his Basstory Tour. He called me up and said, “Hey man, you think Sin Circus would be my backing band for Basstory when I come through?” I said, “Absolutely they will!” So they learned a few Megadeth songs, my son Derek Unger, vocalist and bass player for Sin Circus, got a chance to focus on just being a vocalist. It was kinda cool watching Derek stepping out of his zone of playing the bass and singing. Just to get up there and be a frontman for a change instead of a frontman that also plays the bass. David was thrilled with them, he thought they did an amazing job. As their dad and manager, it was an amazing feeling sitting out there watching them play with David. It was really cool.
Steve P: That’s awesome. What can we expect from Sin Circus going forward?
Steve U: Right now as we speak they are over in Lewiston, Idaho shooting video number three. I’m sure you’ve seen the first two videos, “I’m A God” and “Light Years Away”.
Anita: We have and they rocked!
Steve P: Especially Light Years Away, so far that’s been our favorite at The Metal Channel.
Steve U: That song seems to resonate with people. Alex Black, the guitarist, he’s the one that’s kinda the tech guy – computer savvy if you will – so he’s been doing all the editing and putting the videos together. The plan is to drop two more videos between now and the time that the album gets released. The new album is done and fully recorded, it sounds absolutely amazing! So this will be video number three, after that they’re going to release at least one if not two more videos. Half of the album will have a video before the album rolls out in March or April, then they’ll kick off the full tour.
Steve P: Keep us posted, we would love to do a review on the full album.
Steve U: Right on man, absolutely!
Anita: I have a question…
Steve U: Should I be sitting down for this one?
Anita: You’re one of the metal gods, the godfathers of metal if you will. I was wondering, what is it you’d like to see your sons accomplish as you pass the torch onto them?
Steve U: Well let’s see here, a lot of people ask me what are you going to do when your sons go farther in the business than you did. I answer, “What do you think I’m going to do? I’m going to celebrate because that’s what parents are supposed to do.” They’re supposed to push their kids to be better, do better, live an even better life than they did. I’m going to kick my heels up and celebrate! Of course I’m trying to keep my own musical career afloat, but at the same time I’m doing everything I can to help with Sin Circus. They’re just an amazing band and I think they’re going to be one of the next big things that happens. When it does, I’m going to be nothing but proud. I’m going to be proud I had a hand in helping it happen. I’m going to be proud when I can sit down and say my sons passed the teacher, I have no problem with it.
Steve P: That’s awesome!
Anita: As parents ourselves, we couldn’t agree more.
Steve P: You’re in a couple of other bands with Stet Howland as well. We figured we’d follow up from Dave’s interview and ask what’s going on with Last Temptation or Killing Machine?
Steve U: Last Temptation is a band that actually blossomed out of us being a part of Killing Machine. Stet Howland and I were asked to travel to France to record the album for Killing Machine. So we went over there and recorded, we had a bunch of riffs and chops so we kind of put 5 songs together into one song. We had to kind of pick and choose from all the riffs and chop them up into some kind of musical sense to where it became a song. We went in to record and they’d booked us for two and a half, three weeks, so we went in as a band with headphones and recorded. When we finished that, it was time for the vocalist to come in and do his parts but he wasn’t gonna come in anytime soon. We discovered it was rescheduled for a different time but we still had 5 or 6 days left. We finished almost a week early on the Killing Machine material, so Pete Shytower, guitarist for Killing Machine, said “Hey listen man, I have this other project that I’ve been doing called Last Temptation. Let me show you some of the material”. Vinny Appice played drums on a lot of it, Bob Daisley played on some of it, Rudy Sarzo also played on some of it. So basically it was a compilation album of a bunch of different musicians from different bands that most people have heard of that recorded on this album. Pete said, “Listen, we’d really like to have you guys do as much as you can on this thing.” So we picked out the songs that we identified with the most and we spent the next 4 or 5 days laying down our parts for what would become the Last Temptation album. I think I played bass on 3, maybe 4 of the songs and I think Stet played drums on 4, maybe 5 of the songs. Then they mixed it down and put the album together. So as I said earlier, it’s really a compilation album of a bunch of different musicians from different bands just coming in and doing their part. Of course nobody wanted to tour the band, so we were offered “Listen, if this thing goes, we need a live band to tour it. Are you guys interested?” Obviously Metal Church is our first priority, but if we could work things around the bands or maybe even double package these bands, Stet and I would open for our own band pulling double duty. There’s all kinds of different things we could do. If they are willing to work their schedule around Metal Church‘s schedule, absolutely we’ll do this. That’s where it sits right now. After recording the album, we went over to Europe where we did a couple of shows in Germany. We did Hellfest which was awesome, we opened up for Dream Theater at Dreamfest, plus we did a couple of club shows prior to those two bigger festivals. Just getting the wheels all greased up as we’d never really played together as a band up to that point. We’d rehearsed for a couple of days before, then a couple of club shows, then Hellfest and opening for Dream Theater.
So yeah, we’ve done a few shows, the album is out. Some people like it, some people don’t. It’s just the way it is with anything you put out. I mean, you can’t make everybody happy, right?
Steve P: Wow, talk about a baptisim by fire! Opening up for Dream Theater right off the bat and only two days rehearsal beforehand.
Steve U: It was crazy, I consider Dream Theater to be one of the gods of prog rock, they’re so amazing at what they do. Here we are this brand new infantile band and we’re up on the main stage to open up for Dream Theater. For me, it was a lot of pressure because I’m sure the bass player for Dream Theater can smoke me under the table playing bass. I mean, that’s not what it’s about technically, they’re all MIT graduates. So when we’re talking music theory, they could probably smoke most of us who are out there doing it making a living ourselves. What counts is what resonates with the people, what fans like. If I can identify with what you’re playing, it hooks people. Somehow you get your hooks into people and it doesn’t matter if you’re a virtuoso like those guys are, or just someone that can play and do their thing and people love it.
Steve P: Absolutely.
Anita: So what’s going on with Alive 85?
Steve U: Alive 85, thank you very much baby, thank you very much! (Elvis accent)
Steve U: That is my other show that I book in between Metal Church, Last Temptation and Sin Circus. A lot of people don’t know this but I’ve always been a huge fan of Elvis. My parents used to listen to him while I was growing up. My parents fucked me up at a young age, they actually brought me to see Elvis when I was 7 years old at the Seattle Center Colloseum. At 7 years old, that show changed my life. After that show I knew what I wanted to do with my life and that was to be a musician.
Steve U: So Alive 85, a lot of people don’t know this either, but I can sing. I learned how to sing practicing along to all the old Elvis records. So I know all of the songs and when you listen to Alive 85 you’ll think, “Are you kidding me, that’s not Elvis singing that?” I can sound a lot like Elvis when I’m singing but I didn’t want to be just another Elvis impersonator because there’s a billion of them. So I came up with this idea of Alive 85 which nobody has done yet. It’s based on the idea that Elvis did not die in 1977 but lived on into the ’80s. If that were to have happened, what would his show be like in the ’80s? You know, when he’s in competition with bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, all the big ’80s hair bands. Elvis would have had to up his show, up his whole game to stay in the game. So that’s what Alive 85 is, it’s an amplified version of the ’70s Elvis show. It basically picks up where all the other Elvis impersonators leave off. They always do the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s Elvis and that’s it, because of the way Elvis‘ life was.
Steve P: It’s the Spinal Tap of Elvis if you will, turned up to 11.
Steve U: Pretty much, yeah. So obviously we have to make it a legitimate Elvis show and do his big hits like “Suspicious Minds”, “Burning Love”, you know all his big hits. But then we also pick a bunch of songs that were huge hits to me in the ’80s, like “Give Me All Your Love” by Whitesnake, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen, “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. We change the keys and do them Elvis style. I can run out on stage in a full jump suit and long hair, this is my vision of what Elvis would have been in 1985.
Steve P: That’s amazing, of all of them you mentioned, the one that just jumped out there was Queen. I mean, we both know you have some vocal chops. We’ve both heard you live in concert on the backing vocals on “Badlands”, which is no easy feat by any means keeping up with Mike Howe. But that is impressive as all hell!
Steve U: Right on, man. People ask “How the hell do you go from being the guy back there screaming those high backup parts to doing this Elvis stuff?” It’s actually really easy for me to sing Elvis songs because it’s really in my range. All the stuff I’m doing with Metal Church, I’m screaming my balls off trying to keep up. Mike Howe has a high voice, so most of my parts are even above his parts. I’m like Jesus, I practically gotta squeeze my balls to hit every note that I gotta sing, you know!
Anita: What is the craziest fan story or backstage story you have ever experienced?
Steve U: Oh man, I don’t know if I can tell you some of them!
Steve U: Craziest fan story, let’s see here. There was this one, this gal that was at one of our shows that I saw from across the room. She was wearing this schoolgirl outfit with the pigtails, the body stockings, the whole nine yards. I’m standing there next to a friend of mine who had this girl that he was with and I said, “Oh damn, look at her!” She says “Oh, that’s my friend!” So she goes and pulls this chick over by me. The chick gets nearer and she’s, you know, a much older lady. So I’m trying to be all nice to her and everything, “Hi, how are you doing? I like your outfit.” Blah blah blah. Well, she somehow got smitten or something and she ended up showing up to the next 3 or 4 shows. We pulled up to BB King’s in New York City and she was already there waiting on the front sidewalk. As we pulled up, I looked out the window and was thinking, “You gotta be kidding me, no way.” I told the guys, “I’m not getting off the bus, just tell her that I stayed and that I’m flying in. I’ll be here later that night.” So she hands them two bags of food she’d cooked for me, along with some jars of moonshine. It ended up back on the bus and the guys started tearing into it. I said, “You guys are really gonna eat that, huh? If you guys are still alive in the next hour or two maybe I’ll try it myself.” But anyway, she ended up getting kinda pissed off that I wasn’t paying attention to her, it was a crazy story.
Steve P: That’s crazy but that’s awesome!
Steve U: The way I finally got out of the situation was on Doro Pesch‘s birthday. She happened to be at BB King’s that night. I can’t remember if she was playing with us or if she just happened to be there. So I said to her, “Doro come here, save me!” So Doro came over and sat on my lap at the table. The chick came in and she sees Doro sitting on my lap, she got pissed off and left.
Steve P: Hard to compete with the queen of metal. That’s the perfect way to end it too, of all the people to come in for the save, Doro Pesch!
Steve U: Yeah, exactly. Of course Doro’s a fucking sweetheart. We did a lot of touring with her this last summer. We did Armored Saint, Metal Church and Doro tours pretty much the whole summer. Both Armored Saint and Doro were on the MegaCruise with us, so it’s like I said, it’s always awesome getting to hang out with people that have become friends.
Steve P: Quick aside about Armored Saint. I know Mike’s vocals have survived the test of time, how about John Bush, does he still have it?
Steve U: Oh John Bush is awesome, that guy can still sing his ass off. John has absolutely still has it. Those guys are absolutely amazing human beings. Actually when we were in Europe, we split a bus. We lived on the same bus with them for a couple of weeks. You couldn’t ask for a better bunch of guys to get along with. Anytime you’ve got 13 people jammed on a tour bus for two weeks, usually somebody pisses somebody off, but none of that happened.
Steve P: That’s good.
Steve U: There’s a funny story about that as well. Metal Church was on the bus for the first 4 shows all by ourselves. On the 5th show, Armored Saint joined us and spent the next week or two with us. So we all had our bunks picked out and I had this upper bunk. I’m hanging out and at around 3 o’clock in the morning I folded up my laptop and leaned it against the wall of the bus. Well, there’s this little inch and a half gap between the side of the bed and the wall. My laptop went “shhhunk” and slid right down the crack in the wall. I’m like “FUCK!” It dropped down into the bunk below me. So I’m half asleep anyhow, it’s early in the morning. I jump down and start climbing in the bunk below to get my laptop. I ended up climbing on top of somebody who turned out to be Joey Vera, their bass player. I’d gotten used to sleeping on the bus by ourselves. I started climbing into that bunk, Joey opens his eyes and he’s like “What the fuck bro?”
Steve U: I’m thinking, “Oh shit, there’s somebody in here!”
Steve P: While you’re there, clear my browser history!
Steve U: Thank god my laptop was down there. It’s funny, the next morning we’re having breakfast. I’m like, “Joey, I can barely look you in the eye bro.”
Steve P: That’s hilarious. What’s the single biggest hurdle you’ve ever encountered and overcome as a musician?
Steve U: Oh man… probably money. Because you know, most people don’t get to do this because there’s not a lot of money in it until you get to a certain spot in the food chain. Not saying that we’re doing great or anything like that, but we’re doing better than a lot of bands that are really trying. There’s the monsters out there that make what we do look like chicken feed, bands like Kiss, Ramstein or the Scorpions. You know, the big bands, they’re making big cash. Bands like us, we’re able to make a living doing what we’re doing, but by no means are we getting rich. So it becomes this thing where basically it sets the kind of lifestyle you get to lead. Financial burdens I think is the biggest hurdle I personally have gotten over in the music business. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to make a fairly decent living. I have a nice house, drive nice cars, have nice things, I own a boat. I’m not living the life of Donald Trump by any means, but I do pretty well.
Steve U: The fact that I can do that through music gives me a sense of pride. Most of the guys that I grew up with that tried doing the same thing that I do and that I did, most of them gave up. They cut their hair, went to school, got a real job, got married, had kids and they’re like “Oh dude, I’m living vicariously through you!” I’m like “Well, it kinda works both ways because you’ve got your 401k plan, you’ve got retirement and everything. Me? I’m probably gonna be on stage until I’m 85. I’m probably going to die of a heart attack on stage.” But you know, what a way to go.
Steve P: No kidding. Coming and going at the same time!
Anita: Your last words will be “Uh huh, uh huh”.
Steve U: Thank you, thank you very much baby! (Elvis accent)
Steve P: You’ll have to pay someone at the last moment, keep on retainer, so they can yell “Elvis has left the building!”
Steve U: There you go! Maybe I should pre-record that now so when I do die they can play it at my funeral and scare the shit out of everybody. They’ll be like oh my God, he’s still here!
Anita: So of all your axes, which one is your favorite?
Steve U: My exes or my axes?
Anita: See, I knew he’d say that!
Steve U: I’ve been endorsed with ESP since 2004 and you know what? They’re an amazing company and I love em, they’ve always taken great care of me. Just recently they sent me a Slayer signature bass. I’m usually not one to play a signature bass, because you know, it’s somebody else’s, but this thing plays so mean and it looks like the fucking batmobile. I was thinking I don’t care who’s signature bass this is, I gotta have one. So they sent it to me and that’s the one I’ve been playing on the last two tours. I absolutely love it. I probably have a total of 25 or 30 ESP basses. Some of them sound a little bit different than the sounds I need for Metal Church, so I use them for other things. Sometimes Sin Circus uses my stuff, but yeah, this latest one that they sent is the Tom Araya Signature Series bass by ESP. The thing is a monster.
Steve P: Anita will be super modest about this but she’s actually a pretty accomplished bass player herself, hers is an ESP as well. Active electronics, the whole nine.
Steve U: Yeah, I think for hard rock bands and metal bands, ESP guitars and basses are pretty much the staple of what they use. Of course, you’ve got your Gibson Les Paul people, like Kurdt Vanderhoof, he’s a Gibson guy. I think Rick Van Zandt, our other guitarist, he’s a Jackson guy. His stuff always sounds amazing, he’s an amazing guitar player, always gets a great tone. But as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been playing ESPs since 2004 and I don’t see any reason why I would ever change.
Steve P: That’s fantastic.
Anita: Do you have a specific rig that feels like “home” or is it more plug in and rock out?
Steve U: I don’t really use any effects. I’m a pretty straightforward guy. I use Ampeg SVT Classic heads, with an 810 Ampeg cabinet and the only thing that I actually use and I think it has a lot to do with my personal tone and sound, is what’s called a Sansamp. It really works well with the ESP basses’ and Ampeg‘s tone. It’s a little stomp box that gives you a little more boost of your high and low end. It gives you more bite and a crisper, crystal clear tone. I’ve been on tour and the Ampeg started smoking and blew up. You can get your sound right out of this little stomp box Sansamp and finish out that half of the show until you can get another amp to replace the fried one. They just route you through the monitors and you don’t even really need an amp. You can connect straight into the PA and still sound really good.
Steve P: That’s a killer piece of gear!
Anita: Lucky number 13! What tricks or treats can we expect from your camp for the new year? Also, I gotta ask, will there be any dominatrix involved?
Steve U: One would hope!
Steve U: New Year’s Eve we are doing a home show here. I’m not sure if you’re aware or not, but New Year’s Eve is actually my son Derek’s birthday. So for the first 20 years of his life I always threw a big New Year’s party at my house. I wasn’t gonna run off and party on my kid’s birthday, so I brought the party home. He got to invite all his friends, I’d invite my friends and it’d be 100 people coming through my house during the night. A good friend of mine, Eric Stewart, who is the current #1 Smoked Barbecue Master of the United States, he always brings the smokers over so we have ribs, steak, everything. That’s what we did up until Derek turned 21. Now since he’s turned 21, we’ve been booking Sin Circus shows. This year we’re doing a show with Sin Circus, Alive 85, Steppenwolf Revisited and Fran Cosmo’s Boston.
Steve P: Wow, that’s going to be a killer show!
Steve U: We’re doing it here, local to where we all live, so a lot of family and friends can all come down and enjoy the show. There’s a little bit of everything: you’ve got Elvis, Sin Circus, Steppenwolf and Boston. If you can’t have a good time with that much variety of music then you know, I can’t help you.
Anita: I gotta know where this party is at.
Steve U: The party is going to be at Louie G’s, in Fief, Washington. It’s actually one of the premier rock n roll stops in the northwest. A lot of venues have shut down due to shitty business but somehow this place has managed. It’s a good sized venue, nice sized stage, great lighting, great sound, holds around 600 people. Louie G’s, New Year’s Eve, ought to be amazing.
Anita: I want to go to this party, for sure.
Steve P: We’ll have to mark the calendar for this one!
Steve U: Come one down, it’s gonna be a good one!
Steve P: To wrap it up, we wanted to let you know the significance of the 13 questions, especially right before Halloween. This is actually the metal as fuck 13 year anniversary with Anita and myself.
Steve U: Oh right on! Congratulations on that, that’s no small feat right there. Here’s to another 13. So, 13 years from now are we gonna be sitting here going “You got time for 26 questions Steve?”
Anita: We definitely appreciate you taking the time Steve. I know you’re one of the busiest musicians on the planet.
Steve U: Anytime guys!