TAKING THE HARD NOX
In The Spotlight - Fortnox
An interview with Rick Fowler
Written by: Gdazegod (May 27, 2002)
May 2002: Conjuring up thoughts about the deep south of the USA, and you are reminded of images from shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard, or movies like 'Smokey And The Bandit'. Immortalised phrases like 'whiskey man' and moonshine runners' hark to the good ol' days of the south. Perhaps not so nowadays, but the tradition lives on, with many a 'good ol' boy' still plying the musical trade.
Let's not forget that other musical styles and successful outfits have their origins in the south. REM and the B52's for instance, though musically, you would not associate them being from Georgia. Nor in a way would eighties metal fans have associated the band Fortnox to be from the south. Texas perhaps, California or even Kentucky where that legendary vault for the US Government resides, but not Georgia. It is an area steeped in tradition, regardless of genre. Back to Fortnox, a local power-trio from Atlanta, who managed to rise up out of their regional base and tour nationally on the back of a record deal with Epic Records. However, guitarist Rick Fowler will tell you another story, one that is typical of so many bands down through the years.
'I grew up in the small town of Bowdon, Georgia' introduces Rick. 'The entire western Georgia area was filled with musicians and luckily, I got to play with some of the best around. After a few early high-school bands, I settled in with some friends and we finally formed a classical rock band called Ziggurat. During the late 70's, I decided to pursue a more stripped down, bluesy form of rock and left the band. After leaving Ziggurat, I was asked by Nathan DeFoor and Joel Shipp to join a band called Deacon Little. We went through a few keyboard players but finally decided to become a 3-piece band. We eventually ended up as Fortnox. The three of us stuck together and never changed members from around 1980 until our demise.'
Along the way the band opted for a name change, one that was asked for by the bands manager I understand? 'Yes he came up with the name Fortnox. We were named Deacon Little at the time and he felt that anything including the word 'little' sounded weak. None of us really cared for the name. We just went along with it.'
Ironically, for a southern band their sound was anything but. With an array of comparisons spanning the globe. 'My main influences were Texas blues (Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, etc.) and British rock' says Rick. 'Especially the blues based bands like Savoy Brown and some of the heavier 70's bands from the UK. I am also a big Beatles, Stones, and Badfinger fan. I think it was similar for Joel and Nathan. I do know that Nathan also studied jazz drumming and listened to Buddy Rich and others. We had rather 'Beatle-ish' melodic influences and the heavy drive of early metal bands. We also maintained a strong blues element in the music.'
FORTNOX AND EPIC
How on earth did you land your deal with Epic, and grab Chris Tsangarides as your producer? 'We had been courting several labels and became nationally popular opening for Mother's Finest, Loverboy, and some other bands.' Rick explains. 'We were chosen to be on radio station 96-Rock in Atlanta's Homecooking album of Georgia bands. The song was an early version of Storm Inside My Head and it became a regional hit. Epic had seen us play and called us back to inform us that they now wanted to sign the band. We already had a great producer (Ed Seay) who was a very successful pop music producer. However, Epic wanted to make us more of a Judas Priest-like heavy metal band. They hired Chris because he had worked with Ozzy Osbourne and some other heavy metal acts. We paid Ed $8,000 for his finished work but had to let him go as a producer. We liked Chris a lot, but never would have dumped Ed if Epic hadn't made us change.'
So, during 1982 Epic released the Fortnox album, and for it's time managed to create a little bit of a buzz locally. 'In 1982 we reached #44 in the US in airplay with the song 'Storm Inside My Head.' Our video of the song was in the MTV top 20 play-list for a short time and we seemed to be building quite a following during the first few months after the record's release. We toured relentlessly for about ten months, mostly headlining clubs and opening for larger concert and stadium acts like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Pat Benetar, Sammy Hagar, George Thorogood, The Ramones, and others.'
Fortnox - Live
Did you get out on the road at all, perhaps with some of your Epic labelmates like Mother's Finest, Molly Hatchet? 'We did play a bunch with Mother's Finest. In fact 'Mo' (the guitarist for MF) co-wrote one of the songs on our record. We also played with Cheap Trick and a couple of other Epic artists.' Rick also goes on to mention the issues they had on the road. ' The problem was that our touring, airplay, and record distribution were poorly coordinated. Our management sent us out too early and we called it the '1982 prematour.' The airplay often fell behind our shows in a city. We would be #1 on a large Texas radio station but be stuck in Canada playing for pennies as an opening act. It would have been much better to allow the record to create a demand for us to perform in certain markets. Then we could have actually made money.'
Apart from a small review I read in UK's Sounds Magazine, I don't recall much other publicity, apart from being compared to Canadian bands April Wine and The Hunt. But were you, Nathan and Joel happy with the end result? 'First, let me say that we liked Chris Tsangarides very much' clarifies Rick. 'However, so many things went wrong during the recording sessions that the album ended up sounding like crap.'
Chris's engineer was sent back to London from the Atlanta airport because of passport problems so Chris had to do the record without him.
Our manager forced Chris to record in a studio that he did not like. We were later told that our manager got a kickback from the studio. Perhaps that explained why he insisted on that studio. I personally do not know, but it was rumored.
During tracking, the studio's poorly adjusted Studer machine would gradually speed up as the tape moved across the reels. We had to erase all tracks but drums and bass and cut all guitars by recording about 30 seconds at a time. We would stop and retune the guitars to match them to the bass track's pitch. The studio blamed my guitars and would not admit that the machine had a problem. Therefore I cut the entire album using the heaviest gauge strings available and I could barely play a solo. Chris finally demanded that the machine be fixed. By the time the studio repaired the machine, it was too late to re-cut guitars and we had to start mixing. Some things sound weird on the record because of this tape speed problem.
Joel (our bassist/lead vocalist) lost his voice due to vocal nodes. We were calling all over the world to import a vocalist but finally had to let Joel squeak through the vocals. When we finished the record, Joel had to go through extensive treatment with steroids and take lessons from an opera coach in order to prevent future damage.
'For a short while, the album and video did very well in the States. However, due to a poorly coordinated promotional campaign, terrible tour routing, and the fact that Epic could not follow up on distribution, everything started collapsing after about eight months. We realized that we were screwed when we found that, although we were playing in stadiums (as a supporting act) and receiving quite a bit of national radio and TV airplay, not one record could be found in any store. Epic simply stopped shipping Fortnox records. Radio DJ's were writing letters to Billboard and other trade magazines complaining about the lack of availability of the Fortnox album. We were averaging a 400 miles per day drive and the expenses were enormous. Finally, we decided that there was no reason to continue touring because there were no longer any records for sale. So the answer is no, we were not at all happy.'
Fortnox - s/t (1982, Epic)
LIFE AFTER FORTNOX
What eventually happened to the band? 'We finally realized that nothing we could do would get records into stores. We decided that it was time to end it.'
Did you release any other material other than what was on the first album? 'No. After the break-up of Fortnox, Joel and I formed a band called Bombay. We did a self-promoted (no label) record with legendary producer Eddie Offord, who was excellent to work with. We got some MTV airplay and soon reached the final stages of signing a huge management deal in Los Angeles. However, before we could get to LA to seal the deal, it mysteriously fell apart. Years later, I was told by an eyewitness (who was in LA with our old manager at the time) what had happened. According to this person, our ex-manager had heard about the new management signing, was bitter over our break-up with him, and talked the major management company into not signing us. Bombay basically gave up at that point but we played long enough to pay off the huge debt of doing the album and video. I am still pretty pissed about what our ex-manager allegedly did. I cannot prove anything, but the eyewitness did not know me that well and had no reason to lie about the incident. This is really the only occurrence that leaves me bitter. I can write off the other mistakes and fiascos as typical music biz foolishness.'
I suppose reflecting back on the Georgia scene, there were so many great bands back then. 'There were some great Atlanta rock bands' agrees Rick. 'Some friends, The Producers, did pretty well but unfortunately were on Portrait Records, a branch of Epic. They should have been huge, but they were also left hanging by their label. Mother's Finest were superstars in the South but never really broke in the North because no one understood what was mostly a black rock band. They also never got the full support of Epic. R.E.M. was breaking heavily, especially in the music press. The B-52's were also becoming big and the Athens music scene was exploding. I did not live in Athens at the time so I completely missed out on the Athens glory days. Great bands like Riggs and Whiteface were getting major attention around Atlanta and quite a bit nationally. In general, the music scene in Georgia was very good during the early 1980's.'
Reading some material about you and Fortnox on the Internet bought to light the condition of Tourette Syndrome that you've had to endure over the years. In a nutshell Rick, how do you describe something like this to the uninformed? 'Most people misunderstand Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. They think that it is either a mental disorder or a nerve twitch problem, such as Myoclonus. It is neurological, but to the affected person, it feels much like an unwanted entity has invaded one's mind and body and is always trying to take over. It is organic in origin but causes some very bizarre behaviors in many people.'
As I understand it, it's a condition that in today's modern medical vernacular is quite common place now - particularly among children. Though in days gone by that wasn't always the case? 'I have had it since I was a child. However, little information was given to most doctors until the mid 1980's. Therefore I was diagnosed with and/or treated for everything from manic-depression (bipolar) to lead poisoning. I was finally properly diagnosed with TS at the age of 32.' says Rick.
One can only wonder then what this condition can do to a musician playing live, as in Rick's case. 'Yes. It has always been an irritating thing to deal with and it has gotten worse over the past decade. I am lucky enough to have a moderate case, so I can handle it pretty well.'
I know you've written a book about your circumstances, and for those others who have the condition, what words of advice can you offer them? 'Try to live your life in spite of the symptoms and do not get sucked into living life around Tourette's. I have seen people whose lives are now built around this disorder. The obsessions, compulsions, and tics will attempt to completely take over. Give them as little power as possible.'
Despite living alongside Tourette Syndrome, Rick has managed to lead an otherwise normal life as a musician. 'I recently released a Tourette syndrome benefit CD entitled Welcome Companions with former R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry, Randall Bramblett (from Traffic), and some other great musicians. We did some shows with the help of Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, who also played with me and really boosted the fundraising. I am currently producing and playing guitar on some upcoming CD's. These include vocalist Sherry Joyce, musician/songwriter Jonathan Dorsey, hard rocker Carla LeFever, and a funny country band called Redneck Greece Deluxe. I also play guitar with Redneck Greece as well as the Winnebagos, a blues/rock band. I am going to keep playing music and trying to survive. I am also working on another book about Tourette syndrome.
So if there's anything you've learned about the music biz after all these years Rick, what would that be? 'The music business may take away your career and your money, but it cannot touch the joy of playing good music with true friends.'