Interview by Mark Lacey
Bar a temporary hiatus from 1997-2008, Airforce have enjoyed a near forty year career as one of the UK’s most promising heavy metal bands stemming from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Their foundations, like those of Iron Maiden, are part of the legacy of the now infamous Cart & Horses pub in Stratford.
As we talk, the band are in the middle of tour rehearsals for shows that will see them support British Lion across the UK throughout January. With many of those dates already sold out, Airforce are enjoying renewed success.
MGM: For anybody who’s not seen Airforce before, just describe what you sound like?
Tony: A lot of people have said if Iron Maiden and Judas Priest had a baby, that’d be Airforce. That ain’t a bad mum and dad.
Chop: Classic heavy metal, NWOBHM. We’ve been about since 1985-6. We’re just in studio now and we just finished rehearsing. We’re just around the corner from Steve Harris, funny enough. We’re just in Sheering in Harlow, Essex.
MGM: The origins of the band began in 1986, and you had a ten year stint, before taking a bit of a break, but let’s go back a bit further. How did how did the three of you first meet and get together?
Chop: Well, me and Tony played in a band called EL34.
Tony: And we’d been together for a few years, since around 1979. That’s when I was introduced to Chop through another friend of ours. I joined the band EL34. We stayed together until the mid-eighties. We had a couple of singers come and go, and then we had a drummer and singer leave at the same time. Initially we were looking to find replacements for the drummer and singer to the band EL34. But then Doug came along, via Steve (Harris) who knew he was looking to come back into the music scene. We got Doug and then his brother, Sam Sampson, joined us as the vocalist.
Doug: Sam was in Sam Apple Pie.
Tony: At the time we thought, well, let me just go for a name change as well. So we came up with Airforce. We still can’t quite remember who came up with that name. It’s a long time ago, there’s a few different memories and opinions there.
Chop: We don’t know who came up with it.
Doug: It was my brother; he came up with it!
Tony: I didn’t want it at the time. I remember falling out with him about it. But we stuck with it and we like it.
MGM: So, Doug, you got introduced to Chop by Steve Harris. What is the wider Steve connection? And how did that connection come about?
Chop: I knew Steve because we worked together years ago, when we were in our early twenties. And when we worked together, Steve was in Iron Maiden, and I was in a band, and that’s how we become friends. We just got the same things in common. When Steve was in Iron Maiden, he had no gear, As a bass player, he had no gear at all, so he used to borrow my guitar gear to play his bass through, and that’s how we become more connected. This was before Doug was in the band. It was Ron Rebel on drums.
Doug: I met Steve through Smiler. And then he left, and started up Iron Maiden. He offered me the job then, but I didn’t go along with it at that time. Then I joined another band called Janski, and when I finished with them, I met with Steve. He said, I know a geezer that’s looking for a drummer. And he took me down, and that’s the first time I met Chop. We went down to the studio and Chop was rehearsing. I didn’t actually join that band at that time. I didn’t join until a couple of years later, after I came out of Iron Maiden, and then we met up again, and then that’s when we got Airforce.
Chop: Me, Steve, and Doug had a jam in the studio, didn’t we, and that was in 1977. I kind of knew of Doug and he kind of knew of me.
Doug: But we didn’t actually know each other.
Chop: Believe it or not, we had the same phone number. Mine was 520 and his was 521, but most of it was exactly the same. So, I would get calls for Doug and he would get calls for me. Really weird. So, we knew of each other, but had never really met. Thanks to Steve we did meet, and it was good.
MGM: I’m guessing the Steve Harris connection must open a lot of doors for Airforce. But do people come to watch Airforce purely because of the Maiden connection, and can that be a distraction for you?
Doug: I don’t know, really. Some people may be curious because we’ve got an Iron Maiden connection, but on the other hand, some people turn up that didn’t even know who we were and they become fans.
Tony: Steve doesn’t hand anything on a plate; trust us. We had to do our own groundwork. We’ve got a couple of albums out …. a lot of groundwork, and footwork before. He wouldn’t just say come along. We have to prove ourselves. He told us that the last time we saw him. He said, you didn’t get this just because you’re mates; it’s on merit. He has done us a few favours, but we’ve had to prove our worth, and show we can do it on our own. He won’t give us anything for nothing. Trust us. If anything, it made it harder.
MGM: So, Chop, you’re the only consistent member of Airforce all the way through the two different incarnations of the band. Thinking back to when you put the band together back in the mid eighties, what was your vision for Airforce? And has that vision been realised?
Chop: I’ve always loved playing anyway. And when Airforce did break up; when Doug left and Tony left, I was kind of on my own. I had no singer. I drafted in different singers, different bass players, different drummers, but I only played a few gigs, and I was never really happy. But then when Tony come back and Doug come back, it kind of felt like a family had come back together. We get on well. We had that little break. We had a lot of problems with singers and it caused a lot of problems. It was causing a big headache, but then Doug and Tony couldn’t hack it and they left me on my own. So, I just carried on.
MGM: Your relationship with singers is a bit like Spinal Tap’s relationship with drummers. They keep coming and going, disappearing, exploding, and gardening accidents.
Chop: We had so many problems with singers. You won’t believe it.
Tony: But it seems to be consistent with (Flavio) Lino now. He’s been with us about three years.
Chop: I’ll tell you what it was, it was singers and girlfriends. The girlfriends would tell the singers, you either leave the band or I’m leaving you. So, they kind of chose their girlfriends and wives, whatever, but they all broke up with the girlfriends anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.
MGM: Talk to me a bit about the recordings that you guys have done as a band. Airforce didn’t put any music out in your first stint from 1986-1997, but since you’ve come back together, you’ve put out quite a lot of material, albeit with lots of different singers on it. Have you changed from being a touring band, to a recording band?
Chop: in the early days we had demos out, but it was the same thing. With the singers, we couldn’t put a demo out … we recorded the demo, and the singer left. We got another demo, another singer left. It just carried on, so we couldn’t release anything. We couldn’t even go for a deal because we didn’t know what singer was going to be with us, and how long they’re going to last for. It’s really hard. So that’s why we couldn’t put anything out.
Doug: We didn’t have the internet in them days as well, so you had to get a record deal to put stuff out. Unless you were self-financing it, you didn’t have no platforms like you got today. It would have been very difficult to get the mass audiences just on a demo tape. It was really a struggle all the time.
MGM: You’re in the middle of rehearsals for the forthcoming tour. I see (Flavio) Lino is not with you today. He lives in Portugal, so do you rehearse without him, or can he join you remotely?
Chop: Most of the time we do rehearse alone, just the band.
Tony: Harping back to the old days. We’re so used to not having singers, we can rehearse quite easily without a singer. They’d drop in now and then when they were around, so it’s paid dividends.
Chop: But Lino is a real professional guy. We send him whatever we’ve done and he’ll rehearse it at home and then he’ll come to the studio and he’s got it. He’s good like that.
MGM: How did you guys meet Flavio Lino, given that he lives in Portugal?
Chop: That was down to me, because I had a friend call me up to go and see a Portuguese Iron Maiden tribute band at the Cart & Horses. I didn’t want to go, but in the end I did, and he was singing. His voice was amazing. So, I spoke to him and I said, do you fancy joining Airforce. And he went, I’ll come down and audition. He came along and he was fantastic.
Tony: He flew back the next day, and then we went to Poland.
Chop: the next time we saw him was in Poland on a gig.
Tony: He had two rehearsals with us and then he played that show in Poland as his first live show with Airforce.
Chop: It just goes to show how professional that man is. He didn’t know the songs, he just worked hard on them, done it and turned up for the gig. I was a bit nervous, but it was like he’d been in the band for years.
Tony: We weren’t even sure. We were going to Poland. We were going to go to a studio and have an interview and we thought we were going to do a session recorded in a studio. We turned up at 5pm and they said, oh, at 7pm you’re playing live to an invited audience of 400 people and it’s broadcast live.
Chop: Yeah, well, we were all surprised and everyone thought in Poland that Lino had been with the band for years, they didn’t know it was his first gig.
MGM: That gig became the live album ‘Live Locked N Loaded’ that the band went on to release. Many of the songs that were played in Poland that night were from ‘the ‘Strike Hard’ album that wasn’t released until a year later.
Tony: They were just songs that were still in progress. We had a lot of material before we recorded, because ‘Strike Hard’ was the first real individual album with new material. We had the ‘Judgement Day’ album, which was all retrospective; old demos, different singers. But ‘Strike Hard’ was the first proper studio album. So, some of them songs we’d been playing for a while.
MGM: The ‘Strike Hard’ album also features guest appearances from vocalists, Paul Di’Anno and Ivan Gianni on two songs; the latter featuring on ‘The Reaper’. The Cart & Horses, famous for being the birthplace of Iron Maiden, have just released a new CD ‘2 Wasted Years’, featuring an exclusive version of that track by Airforce. What do you do differently?
Chop: It’s just Lino. The album versions with Ivan and Lino, but the one in the Cart & Horses is just Lino. We re-recorded the vocal.
Doug: Yeah, it does. I did my first proper gig down there with Smiler. It’s not the same as it was back then in 1975. It’s changed now.
Tony: They redeveloped the area. All the land around pub was taken, so the pub was given a really small footprint. In order to make it bigger, they went down underground and formed the venue in the basement. It’s a nice place, and it’s still iconic to a lot of Maiden fans. It’s a shrine.
MGM: In a few weeks, you’re going to be out on the road with British Lion again. What can fans expect to see from those shows and what do those shows mean to you guys?
Doug: Well, I mean, it’s always great playing with British Lion, and when we did the last one in the UK, we didn’t know what to expect, but it was just like a bunch of mates going on tour, it really was. We all get on so well, and you can always guarantee a good crowd. We always have a great time. I just love the gigs, really.
Chop: Yeah, we went on a European tour with them. To see Doug and Steve sharing the same stage is iconic. And British Lion are lovely guys, as is Steve. All lovely blokes. It’s just so relaxed. They spend time with us and we spend time with them. It’s just a real relaxed atmosphere and it’s fantastic.
Tony: And you can see the full blast of Airforce while we’re on tour as well. We thought we were going down too well on some of the shows, because I suppose we’re a bit more like Maiden than British Lion. And we thought Steve might have got upset, but he said, no, I love it. You’re throwing us a challenge, and you make us play better.
MGM: You’ve just teased us on social media that there will be some dates in Florida coming up in March. Are you able to elaborate on that?
Tony: Because Lino is in Portugal, and he’s working … he’s a police officer …. he has limited time, so we have to manage it. But he had a weekend available in March. I’ve just went over to Florida to Rock N Roll Ribs, which is Nicko McBrain’s restaurant in Florida, for the anniversary of its opening. It was the beginning of December and they have a big party, so I went over there. But while I was over there, I talked to a few people who’d thrown it out in the air that we could possibly shoot over for a very quick mini tour. There’s band called Jetter from Tampa, Florida that supported British Line when they were over there as well. So there’s a lot of connections back there. We’re just finalising the last couple of days. Friday should be Orlando. Saturday is going to be OCC in Clearwater. And then Sunday is going to be the Brass Mug in Tampa. The Orlando date is not completely finalised. As soon as we get that, we’ll be doing the official announcement.
MGM: What other plans have you got beyond this January tour and then these dates in March?
Tony: There’ll be some stuff going on this summer. We’ve got the Headbangers open air festival in Germany in July. We’re going to do a few dates around that. We’ve already got Rhythm & Blues Rhythm Bar in Antwerp, which we played on part of the European tour with British Lion. We’ve been invited back there. There should be some more, but we’ve got to manage Lino’s time.
Chop: We need a break from the gigs because we need to do this recording. We got to get his album finished.
MGM: Album plans? Not heard about that yet. What are the plans? And when is it going to come out?
Tony: It’s a little bit of a complicated story. Our producer, and long term friend of ours who I’ve known for over 40 years, Peter Franklin, who did our Black Box EP, and the studio album and the live album …. unfortunately, over the pandemic, we didn’t see him for a while. He got quite ill and he died just after the pandemic. He’s the person we’ve worked through for a long time, so we were a bit taken back. It’s like losing a member of the band.
Chop: We lost a lot of material that we had recorded with him, so we had to start again from scratch.
Tony: We had to find someone to work with and start recording again. So that was a bit of a blow, but we’ve now gone back to a producer called Jez Code. He produced some of our early demos on the ‘Judgement Day’ album; the stuff with Doug’s brother. He’s gone on to quite a big career, working with Simple Minds, and he’s done a lot of television and film stuff, so it took a while, but we finally found someone. We’ve got all the songs for the album and we’re working through it. Because he’s a busy producer, he’s fitting us around other stuff. It’s in progress and we’ve got some songs done with him. We’ve got a few more ready. We’re hoping by April / May time we’ll release a new studio album.
MGM: Airforce are renowned for bringing in guest musicians and vocalists on your albums. Will we see anyone on this new album? Former Sensation Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) musician, Zal Cleminson, guested on ‘Faith Healer’ on your ‘Strike Hard’ album.
MGM: Will any of the new songs make their way onto the set list for this upcoming tour?
Tony: There’s one new song called ‘Shadows’ that we’ve been playing a bit recently, and we’ve just been rehearsing again tonight, so that’ll be part of the British Lion tour set. There’s a few new songs that are working their way in, but when fans come to see us they want to hear the songs they know.
Chop: When you play and they’re singing the lyrics back to you, that is a great feeling.
MGM: Airforce use a lot of military themes around your lyrics and your artwork, similar to Iron Maiden. What is the reason behind that?
Chop: We don’t mean to write like that, but it just happens. We don’t really know.
Tony: You might see a movie, or watch a documentary ….. I quite like history, so it’s just something that comes up that inspires you and something goes off in your head.
Chop: One of the songs ‘Heroes’, I was watching the news and I’d see young men coming home in boxes and I thought, this is sad, it’s not our war. And it triggered the song ‘Heroes’. I was watching the news, I grabbed my guitar quick and it just happened.
MGM: Digital technology has changed the industry, and made it possible to write and record across continents. One band told me that often the first time they would perform new songs together in person was at the soundcheck of the first gig. With Lino in Portugal, and the rest of you in the UK, are there any parallels there?
Chop: We will do a new song in the sound check, and if it goes well, we might do it at the gig.
Tony: But Lino does come over from time to time, so we do get a chance to rehearse with him every now and then. So we get the songs ready. He’ll have done the vocal back in Portugal. We won’t just go and do a song live before we play it at all, but it’s minimal. Technology is wonderful.
Airforce will be supporting British Lion throughout the UK from 6th – 19th January 2023.
For more information about Airforce check their website
6th: Queen’s Hall, Nuneaton
7th: Leadmill, Sheffield
8th: The Garage, Glasgow
10th: The Brickyard, Carlisle
11th: Parish, Huddersfield
13th: Sin City, Swansea
14th: Chinnery’s, Southend
15th: Concorde 2, Brighton
17th: Booking Hall, Dover
18th: Islington Assembly Hall, London
19th: Epic Studios, Norwich