Interview: Robert Cavuoto
Feature Image Credit: Jason Adam
The Wizards of Winter are celebrating their 10th year of enchanting audiences across North America with their classical and progressive-holiday rock music. From November 13th to December 27th, the band will be performing their theatrical-holiday themed shows. Fans can expect to be dazzled with music from the band’s CD, The Christmas Dream, as well as many other holiday classics.
The Wizards of Winter consist of Scott Kelly [Keyboards], Sharon Kelly [Vocals/Flute], Fred Gorhau [Lead Guitar], Greg Smith [bass], John O’Reilly [Drums], Steve Brown [Lead Guitar], Vincent Jiovino [Vocals], Karl Scully [Vocals], Alexis Smith [Vocals], Kornelia Rad [Violin/ Vocals], and Tony Gaynor [Narrator].
Hard work, perseverance, and having your hands in multiple projects simultaneously seem to be the business model for musicians nowadays. Case in point guitarist Steve Brown, when he is not out touring with Rubix Kube, Eric Martin, Dennis DeYoung, Joe Lynn Turner, on Broadway with Rock of Ages, writing a new Tokyo Motor Fist CD, or lending his playing support to Def Leppard you can find him on tour with the Wizards of Winter. I was able to catch up Steve to chat about the Wizards of Winter tour, what fans can expect at their live shows, and provide a retrospective look back on his career.
Robert Cavuoto: How have things been going on the Wizards of Winter Tour?
Steve Brown: This has been my first long term tour since Trixter’s 1991-1995 tours. When I toured with Def Leppard, that was only two weeks, but this will be a total of six weeks. We only had one major bus malfunction where we almost didn’t make a show in Arizona other than that things are going great. The band all gets along which is a good thing when traveling together on a bus. Everyone is even keel and respectful of each other. We’re having a blast.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about how Wizards of Winter was formed?
Steve Brown: This is my first year in the band, but it’s their 10th anniversary. It started with Scott and Sharon, who are married and the founding members. It started as a one-off charity event to raise money for a food pantry in New Jersey. It was done for the love Christmas, helping people, and playing holiday music like Trans-Siberian Orchestra songs. The first show went well, so they figured why not give it a shot to do more. They make the show bigger and better each year.
Robert Cavuoto: What’s it like playing to sold-out audiences?
Steve Brown: It’s awesome, and the response has been incredible. Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Though it’s a Christmas show, it’s really for everybody. Whatever you believe in, you will enjoy the show. We just played the Bergen PAC in New Jersey; it was a home town show where my seven-year-old daughter and 84-year-old parents all enjoyed it. There is something for every age group and faith. Fred, Scott, and Sharon are the main co-writers. Fred shreds out like Richie Blackmore / Yngwie Malmsteen with his style of playing. My goal when I joined the band was to blend my style of playing with his. I’m playing the more melodic parts like what I would play with Def Leppard or with Trixter. I’m also playing slide guitar, blues guitar, and bringing my high energy performance to the live shows.
Robert Cavuoto: Did you have to audition for the Wizards?
Steve Brown: I got involved by dear friend and bassist, Greg Smith, who I’m in Tokyo Motor Fist with [Greg Smith on bass, Ted Poley from Danger Danger on vocals, Chuck Burgi from Rainbow/Billy Joel on drums]. He has been in the Wizards for about eight years. I saw the show a few years back and I loved it. I told Scott, Sharon, and Greg if they ever had an opening, I would love to help out. The opportunity came up, and I jumped at it! We are eleven shows into the six-week tour.
Robert Cavuoto: I bet Greg has some amazing stories to tell playing with Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and Rainbow?
Steve Brown: I have to tell you, the Rainbow and Rich Blackmore stories are the best ones. His career has been very colorful just from playing with Richie alone [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: How long did it take you to get up to speed with playing their songs?
Steve Brown: For Sharon, Scott, and Fred, it’s an all-year-long job. They are always working on new material. I signed on for the tour in the beginning of April and was given some recordings of their live shows and studio CDs. I do the same thing I have always done regardless of the band; I get a dollar store notebook and start charting out the guitar parts with tablature and making notes. Its old school but that’s how I have always done it. I’m also superstitious because the notebook goes back to the Def Leppard days. I have used it for Rock of Ages on Broadway, Joe Lynn Turner, and Eric Martin. I have to give a shout out to my buddy Chris Green; he was the guitarist on the last Wizards tour. He gave me all his Guitar Tab Pro notes from the previous tour. That was an incredible help. I’m a believer in all these online forums on how to learn more about playing guitar, whether you use YouTube or Guitar Tab Pro. I’m a big fan of saving time. When we were kids learning to play guitar, could you imagine if you had all the technology and resources that is available now? I remember trying to figure out Van Halen solos with vinyl on a turntable. I don’t want to sound like an old fart, but I will, nowadays it’s so easy to be a great guitar player. I thank God for technology, and I utilize it even when recording. Greg and I have been busy while on this tour recording the next Tokyo Motor Fist CD. I have a full recording studio on a laptop. I have so much firepower that I can make a Def Leppard Hysteria quality record on my laptop. You have to use technology to your advantage!
Robert Cavuoto: I’ve spoken to Phil Collen a bunch of times, and he always records on the road. In fact, he produced/recorded that last Tesla CD while on tour in buses, hotel rooms, and backstage.
Steve Brown: I saw the Shock CD being recorded with Brian Wheat’s portable Pro Tools rig. I have been doing a mobile rig for years. Nowadays, I do guitar tracks on the road without amps. I use these plug-ins instead and it’s mind-blowing. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.
Robert Cavuoto: I know you from when we were kids and you were a huge Van Halen fan. Now you can play anything with anybody. Tell me about the importance of diversity when it comes to being a guitarist?
Steve Brown: Diversity for me comes from my love of different styles of music. My main Rock & Roll influences are Kiss, Van Halen, Cheap Trick, Bon Jovi, and Def Leppard. Before I started playing guitar in 1978, I was a huge Elvis and Beatles fan because that’s what my parents listen too. I learned about diversification early on because I was such an avid reader of all the guitar magazines. I still have the magazines with Eddie Van Halen’s and Randy Rhoads’ interviews. Randy was the one who got me to listen to classical music. In the summer of 1984, going from 8th grade to high school, I took up playing the violin. Funny story, I didn’t dig the violin or the lessons, so I spent the entire summer playing “Eruption” on the violin! [Laughing]. All musicians should learn to play different types of music like jazz and classical. It will make you a better player. I don’t think I played harmonic minor scales until I started playing with Joe Lynn Turner in 2016. Now with the Wizards, I have been playing a lot of harmonic minor scales. That’s the beauty of music and playing guitar; it’s a never-ending enrichment and learning process. All those Def Leppard songs that are sonically perfect and sound sweet to the ears are not so easy to play. They are intricate. If you are a guitar player and want a real challenge, don’t worry about sweep picking or playing 32nd note; learn to play the guitar picking part on the intro and verse to “Bringing on the Heartbreak.” That was one of the hardest things for me to learn! Playing with Dennis DeYoung and all the Styx songs are tremendously hard. Dennis DeYoung has to be one of the best pop-rock, prog-rock songwriters out there. The solos by Tommy Shaw and James Young are really tough too. I always try to take something away from playing with these bands. It has helped me be a better guitarist, songwriter, and singer! At 49 years old, I’m better now than I have ever been!
Robert Cavuoto: Kudos to you as you have worked very hard since you were a kid to get to where you are now. Is there a Wizards of Winter song that challenges you?
Steve Brown: I’m going to say “Secrets of the Snow Globe” as there are a lot of different parts and harmonies. I wrote the live solo for that song. Their songs are harder then they look too. I spend a tremendous amount of time practicing the materials, so it becomes second nature. The other end of the spectrum is the live performance. You don’t want to be on stage staring at your guitar neck the entire show. When I hit the stage, I want to look as I have been doing it for ten years. I like to bring my style of playing to whoever I play with. The guys in Def Leppard all gave me musical freedom; Joe Elliot told me that I would be taking most of Steve Clark’s parts, which is an honor. He told me, “Do your thing, but stay honest and true to Steve with the original parts.” That was a high compliment for my abilities when giving me the reins. He knows that I would never disgrace the honor of Steve.
Robert Cavuoto: How did you connect with Def Leppard?
Steve Brown: It goes back to 1987 when I met them very quickly while on their Hysteria tour at Meadow Arena in New Jersey. On that first go-around of that tour, they were playing to half-filled arenas throughout America. This was before Hysteria blew up. At that time, Trixter was on an upward trajectory and starting to get some success. There was an interest in Jersey bands after Bon Jovi and Skid Row, so we were the next band in line and selling out venues. We were the biggest band in New Jersey in 1988. Our manager was a good friend with Q-Prime management who managed Def Leppard, and they brought us in. I remember hitting it off with Phil right away. Our friendship lent itself to me becoming friends with Joe Elliot and Rick Savage. I’ve seen every tour multiple times since their Hysteria tour. I don’t think there is anyone on the planet who knows their show better than I do. Never in a million years did I think this opportunity would come up, but it did. In 2012 Phil asked to be on the Mike Huckabee show for Fox News to talk about health and fitness. Mike is a bass player, so he was going to play a song with him. Phil asked me to join in, knowing that I could not only handle the guitar parts but the vocals as well. We did a version of “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and I’ll never forget Phil telling me how great he thought our performance was, how our voices blended nicely, and how my playing complimented his. I think that was the seed in his mind if there was a need for me. A year later, I got a call that Vivian was diagnosed with cancer, and he asked me to help out during the Vegas residence. That summer, I went out on tour with them to Europe and the next year on the co-headlining tour with KISS doing sound checks. In the fall of 2014, I played Wembley Stadium for the first time for the NFL pre-game, there were 90,000 people there. I was like, “Thank guys!” I didn’t get the club show warm-up [laughing]? Sav told me to just go out there and look cool! Six years later, I’m on the Def Leppard team. I never thought as a kid playing the Pyromania album that this would happen. I was a fan since their first record. Rick Allen was the reason I started Trixter at 12 years old because he joined Def Leppard at 15 years old and recorded their first record at 16. I felt if he could do it, so could I! I’m one of the luckiest musicians, but I also work harder than most people you’ll ever meet. I don’t take any of it for granted, and I’m so thankful the phone rings and people need me. There have been big bands that have called me over the years who asked me to fill in, but thankfully someone got well.
Robert Cavuoto: Is Tokyo Motor Fist your primary band?
Steve Brown: Right now my main band is the Wizards of Winter. For the last seven years, my day job as I like to call it has been with the 80s extravaganza show that I play with Rubix Kube. I have been on retainer for so long with Def Leppard that it is also my day job. The new Tokyo Motor Fist CD will take the band to another level and should come out before the summer of 2020 on Frontier Records.
Robert Cavuoto: Would you ever consider joining a full-time band again?
Steve Brown: If Def Leppard called and asked me to be a permanent member, of course I would do it! It would be the ultimate. I love playing with all the bands, but it’s tough juggling my 7 or 8 projects. It’s a lot of work with Def Leppard, Dennis DeYoung, Rubix Cube, Wizards of Winter, Danger Danger, and Tokyo Motor Fist. That’s a lot of material that I have to keep in my head at all times. Thank God for the last 25-30 years I have been busy as a musician. I always tell my wife, “In January, things are going to slow down,” then the phone rings, and I’m heading to the airport to hop on a plane somewhere. I’m blessed and ready for anything!