Order Live Lightning from Perris Records HERE
Perhaps best well-known as the front man for Babylon A.D., singer-songwriter Derek Davis has been an accomplished musician since he was just a teenager. His prolific talents have provided him the opportunity to write songs and collaborate on various music projects over the years with notable songwriters and producers including Jack Ponti (Alice Cooper and Bon Jovi), Tom Werman (Motley Crue and Cheap Trick), Taylor Rhodes (Aerosmith), Gene Black (Rod Stewart), and Michael Anthony (Van Halen).
Davis sat down with myself and my 18-year-old guitarist son, Zach, earlier this week to discuss the release of the latest Babylon A.D. live recording, Live Lightning, shared candid memories about his own musical journey, and offered up insights on some of his favorite artists and influences.
Elliott Gordon (All Music Magazine): Today is the release of Babylon A.D.’s new live recording, Live Lightning. After 30+ years since the band’s self-titled debut release, how have your emotions changed over time, if at all, for a moment like this? Does it feel any different?
Derek Davis: Yeah, it does feel a little bit different, just because the first one is the one you remember the most. The first one is the one you’ve been dreaming about since you started playing music as a young teenager, when you are dreaming about getting that first record deal. As time goes by, sure it’s still exciting to release new music, but hopefully you’ve done it enough times that you’ve had your feet on the ground to know exactly what’s going to happen.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): What should Babylon A.D. fans expect to hear differently with the release of Live Lightning compared to your prior live albums?
Derek: There a lot of different songs on there, but this album just seems to be recorded a lot better than the other ones were. Maybe the technology has gotten better, but we also have a better sound man and we had recordings from across three different gigs. Ultimately we chose two shows because those two just sounded the best. We had 16 songs to choose from, but we settled on 14 and it really just went on the sound quality and which songs sounded the best. They just happened to be really, really good shows we recorded and the crowds were really into them.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): Speaking about longevity, I know I joked with you that I still have the 1992 Arista Records press release for Nothing Sacred. In it you are quoted as saying “I don’t like fun, happy, uplifting, poppy lyrics. I always take the little bit darker approach to everything.” Does that still ring true, or do you think you’ve evolved over the years as a songwriter, especially with your solo material?
Derek: I think I’ve evolved a little bit from that, but I think that quote was really in regards to Babylon A.D.-type material. I’ve written lots of different songs over the years, even some that are more Paul McCartney/Wingish-type poppy songs, but in regards to Babylon A.D., I am always looking for that male testosterone, angry, “I am going to kick your ass” kind of lyrics. Like if you are going out with a girl, she’s not going to break my heart, I am going to break her heart. That is kind of the way the Babylon A.D. engine works.
Zach Gordon (All Music Magazine): As a teenager like me, what was the name of the first band you played with as a real gig, and what do you remember about that show?
Derek: My very first band was just with three of my friends and we all just started playing together. We were in my garage and just built our own cheesy little rehearsal studio with egg cartons. We even recorded after only playing together for maybe two months. We hung one microphone from the ceiling and recorded, and it was so weird because it just kind of snowballed after that. This was back in like the 9th grade, and pretty soon all my friends and people around school heard we had a band. That was a big deal, and over at my house about every other night, we started having 40-50 people there. We’d be partying and playing, and we got better and better, but the first actual show that I remember that I did was with a band called Reckless.
I played at my high school in Hayward, California, and we did mostly copies, but I was writing songs then, too. We played mostly like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and AC/DC kind of stuff. Everything is cliques when you are in high school, at least it was back then for me anyways. We had like the Mexican gangs, and we were the burnouts, just staying out the parking lot smoking pot, drinking and playing music. One day the whole school is standing out there watching us play at lunch time. It was our very first gig we ever played, but we already had a lot of friends starting to follow us. We played, and I think we were in the middle of “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin, and the Mexican guys went and pulled the plug on us. And I am not lying, it started a big, giant fight in the school. I’m talking like 50 people on 50 people! All the football guys were on our side, and everyone was fighting because they pulled the plug on us. I will never forget that. That was my first gig. (laughing)
Zach (All Music Magazine): If I snuck into your studio while you were working on new material, what equipment would I find?
Derek: I use a lot of different stuff. I use everything you can think of, really. When it comes down to recording demos, I will use something like a Line 6 POD. It just has everything I need. It has all the distortion, all the amps, flange, delay, whatever. For just recording and showing the guys demoing, you just plug the damn thing in, put it into your recorder and you are off to the races. If you want a clean guitar, you’ve got a clean guitar. You have everything you need right there, and it is real easy. I don’t have to set up amps, except when you are ready to record an album. I’ve basically had everything I need in here at my home studio for years. And I don’t really like using the computer, like pushing “Y” to make it cut and paste. I need faders, so I can move the levers up and down to hear the music. I need that, because that is how I grew up, and that is what was in the studios while I was in Los Angeles. You need faders and you need sound. I don’t like making music on the computer through some little tiny ear buds. I lot of people do now, but I don’t get it. I need to have the power. I want to crank this sucker up.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): What was it like for a upcoming band like Babylon A.D., especially back in the late ’80s with so much music being released, to hear that first single on the radio or see your video played on MTV? Are those the “we made it” moments?
Derek: Yeah, in a way. I had been in popular bands before Babylon A.D. that had songs on the radio, but we didn’t have record deals. I already had my taste of that at the age of like 16, the “Oh my god, my song is on the radio” moment. All my friends and relatives would freak out, that kind of thing, but when Babylon A.D. got our record deal and the songs first came on MTV, I think that was the biggest rush.
In fact, right before the first record came out, we were at a friend of mine’s house and he was having a party with like 50 people over. It was about 12 o’clock at night and the record company hadn’t told us that “Hammer Swings Down” was going to be on MTV that night. Although we knew we had shot the video and it was all done, and we had seen the video, we still didn’t know when it was actually going to come out. We just happened to be at a friend’s house partying, and the next thing you know, one of our buddies, who was also in a band, yelled out “Holy shit, you guys are on MTV!” We were like, WHAT?! We cranked it up, and the funny thing was the rest of the guys in all these other bands, who almost had record deals at the time, about halfway through you can tell they were like, “Man, how did you guys do that!?” The questions just started flying, like why you guys and why not us.
Zach (All Music Magazine): How did you find the Babylon A.D. tone and sound?
It is really funny because we were practicing recently and Ron (Freschi), the guitar player who wrote the “Bang Go the Bells” famous lick, is still in search of the tone! When we showed up to practice, he had two new guitars, he had a whole new foot pedal setup, and he’s like, “No, this is the tone now.” Every six months he goes through a new phase of “this is the tone.” But, I got to tell you, it was the new tone! It was fat, sweet, just in your face, and just felt like it goes right through you.
Frank Hannon has that kind of sound, Zakk Wylde has that sound, and there are a few others that when I’ve stood in front of their amplifiers, I’ve gotten that feeling and sound. Now, there is a lot of amplification and stuff like that out there, which sounds great, sounds good, but Ron’s guitar sounded good to me before. But now I know what he is talking about. I was like holy shit, you did go from like an 8 to like a 9.5. I don’t know what a 10 is going to look like!
We call him the fiddler, because he is always fiddling around looking for a new tone. And John (Mathews) just has a set sound that is killer. He is not as technical as Ron is, but it is just hard to try and find your own sound. I really do think it just comes down to how the players play. I have been with Zakk before, and he could just plug into a little amp, put his chorus on there and just have a little distortion box, start playing, and it sounded just like Zakk Wylde on a record. And you wonder, how the hell is he doing that with just a little amp? I try that and it just sounds like shit! (laughs) It is just the way he digs his fingers into the guitar and bends. A lot of it is technique, you know.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): Between rock cruises and festivals, there is no hiding the fact that there is a resurgence of demand for ’80s music; bands like Winger, Poison, Skid Row, and dozens more still actively touring. What do you think has changed in the past 5-10 years to drive this renewed interest?
Derek: This has come full circle in a way, because even one of my sons is really into this stuff now and he is 23. But if you had asked him back when he was 17, he was listening to the rap stuff like everyone else did in high school. With the way the internet is nowadays, you can explore and just try different stuff out, or maybe someone will turn you on to something and then you would say, “Man, how come I never heard that before? Why am I stuck in this world over here when I can hear this?” Then their minds will start to open up.
I know a lot of people about Zach’s age, and even now, my son tells me that almost everyone he knows has record players. They’re not even listening to a lot through the computers any more. When he comes to my house, he is on the record player the whole damn time. He’s listening to Pink Floyd to Guns N’ Roses to Babylon A.D. to Aerosmith, but he’ll put on maybe a Sade record. His tastes have changed as he has gotten a little older now. Now music is now a big, giant canvas and he can pick and choose whatever he likes instead of just being told by his little group that “you better stick with this rap or hip-hop thing”.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): Do you pay attention to any new music that is out there these days, rock or otherwise?
Derek: Like everybody else, you’ve got your Apple music or whatever. They are always popping up new artists, but I will be honest with you, I haven’t heard anything new in the last 10 years that I like. I am kind of bummed out that I never do find anything new that I like, something that I am going to write home about and start following them and stuff like that. I have actually gone kind of backwards in the last five years instead.
Like how Zach has gone back to our late ’80s music, I went back to stuff like Bobby Womack and Elmore James. I am back in the timezone from the ’30s to the mid-70s. That’s where I am at. I am asking myself now, “Why didn’t I hear this shit when I was a kid?” It just passed me by and I didn’t notice it. Of course I knew who James Brown was, and Al Green, and Marvin Gaye, but you really didn’t dig in. Those guys were cool, but I was doing Thin Lizzy. Now I am listening to those guys and going, “Wow, this is the shit.” There is a big palette of music out there. Like I mentioned earlier, that is one good thing about the internet, where everyone can discover new stuff if they want to. But as far as brand new artists, I just don’t like the production. It all sounds tiny and small to me. It sounds fake, but that is just me. I like the stuff that just sounds real, and fat, and feels like it is right there in your living room.
Zach (All Music Magazine): Being a fellow guitar player, I am interested to know, past or present, who would be on your Mount Rushmore of guitar players?
Derek: Of course you have to say (Jimi) Hendrix, that’s undeniable. I love Michael Schenker. I love his guitar playing. I like the way Joe Perry plays, you know, real bluesy and kind of sexy. I like the way Keith Richards plays, even though he isn’t shredding on guitar. It is just his own sound and his own coolness about it. Jeff Beck, of course, was one of the best. That guy is the only guy that I have ever seen, live and having watched tons of videos, that used the Stratocaster properly the way it was made by Fender, with the sound, the way he toggled and things like that. He used it the way that it was made. Most guitarists don’t. They just turn it on 10 and start shredding. There so many, Eric Clapton, so you can go on and on.
I don’t know too many of the new guitar players nowadays, but my nephew has a band called Hollywood Nightmare. They have a couple of albums out and they are really, really good. They are scream-o metal, you know, so they will have this screaming part that is really just like “yaaaaa” in your face, but then they will pop into this cool melody stuff. Every song is 50/50 like that. Him and his other guitar player, man, I don’t know how they do it. They shred, and have been shredding since they were like 14 or 15 years old. They are just so good, but when I play with them and just try to play something slow, and pull out the slide or something, he’s just not there and he’s off the railroad tracks. You have to play with some soul, and sometimes less is more. That is what is so good about people like Neal Schon. He always found the pocket, and when you were done listening to the song, you would say, “Yeah, I remember that lead.” That is always what I try and tell John and Ron, my guitar players. When you guys try to write your leads, always try to make them memorable, so people will remember it right when it starts. The lead is singing to you, and it’s not just about putting a thousand notes in because you can.
Elliott (All Music Magazine): Final question. When should fans expect you out on the road with Babylon A.D., and can I please put in a request for an Atlanta date?
Derek: Atlanta, yeah, I don’t know about that! (laughs) We are working on dates right now. We put Live Lightning out as a bit of a teaser because we are also doing a new studio album. The idea was that we have these gigs recorded, so let’s put this out and just let everyone know we are back. We were already writing songs before COVID and we were going to go into the studio, but then that hit. That was like a two year layoff, so when Perris Records called me and asked if I had some stuff, I said yeah. They asked if we wanted to do a record, and I said, “It’s funny that you asked that because we are starting to gear up to make a new record.” So, that is how this all came about.
We have the live album out today, and we are actually practicing every weekend right now for the new music. We have about four or five shows booked, including The Whisky in September in Los Angeles. We are doing choice, small gigs because what we really want to do is get in the studio and record the album, and that takes a while. We have a lot of really good songs written, but we want to make sure we have the best 10 or 12.
Derek Davis – Lead Vocals + Acoustic Guitar
Ron Freschi – Guitars + Background vocals
John Mathews – Guitars
Danny De La Rosa – Guitars
Jamey Pacheco – Drums
Robb Reid – Bass + Background vocal
Track List for Live Lightning:
1.) Saturday Night
2.) Hammer Swings Down
3.) One Million Miles
4.) Bang Go The Bells
5.) Sinking In The Sand
8.) She Likes To Give It
9.) Bad Blood
10.) Crash And Burn
11.) Shot of Love
12.) Love Blind
13.) Sally Danced
14.) Kid Goes Wild
Elliott is a music photographer covering shows in the Atlanta, Georgia and the surrounding area. The highlight of his photography career was back in the early 90s, selling Neil Diamond the rights to his negatives from a show and purchasing a set of tires for his 1979 280ZX during college with the money.