HARD ROCKIN' HIGH 'N DRY
It's not that unusual these days to hear of a Maltese artist moving abroad in the hope of pursuing a career overseas. In the 1970s and 1980s however, when the local music scene was very different to what it is now, things were different, opportunities less available, and the risks higher too. Bassist Gino Micallef and vocalist Joe Mizzi were among those who took the big step into the unknown back in the day, their overseas experience culminating in a fruitful experience as part of the German band High 'N Dry. Michael Bugeja caught up with the two musicians recently after the band's 1988 album Hands Off My Toy was reissued earlier this year on CD by Scream Records.
What had you been doing musically before joining High ‘N Dry?
GM: I was playing with Fragile back in 1978, and then with B3, with Joe Mizzi as lead vocalist. After B3 folded, I met (guitarist) Detlef Kowalewski, with whom I formed High 'N Dry after moving to Germany. Two years later I went to London, where I played alongside Ray Mercieca in the original Characters before moving back to Malta and then back to Germany as Detlef was reforming the band.
JM: Gino and I first met at Għadira Bay, and we hit it off straight away. He played with Fragile then, and I was an aspiring singer. Later on, after Fragile split up and Gino formed B3 with John Gafá, they asked me to join them. B3 was the band that really helped our creativity as we played with some of the best musicians around at that time. When B3 folded, I joined StratKast, then Gino, who had moved back to Germany, gave me a call saying I should audition for High 'N Dry, so off I went and got the job.
Was it difficult fitting into a music scene that was new to you and so much bigger?
GM: Yes, in the beginning it wasn't easy, but on the music front it felt great; we had a proper rehearsal room and a recording studio. When I started to understand the language I felt more at ease. I also recall being very nervous when we played our first gig at University of Cologne in front of a few thousand people.
JM: The difficulties we faced in the music scene were practically the same we'd have faced anywhere else. Detlef had some good contacts, among them the management team that got us our record deal with Bellaphone Records, so that was a big boost.
Which are your most memorable moments with High N’ Dry?
GM: Mine are opening for Iron Maiden twice in Cologne. Another great moment was playing to a large crowd at the Lorelei festival in Koblenz on the same bill as Meatloaf and Marillion.
JM: For me, the two concerts with Iron Maiden are my favourite memories from High 'N Dry, but touring France and the UK was a great experience too.
The Iron Maiden connection is now legend in High 'N Dry's history, but how did that come about?
GM: I met (Iron Maiden vocalist) Bruce Dickinson at a club in Cologne and we obviously ended up talking about music. They were interested in our studio as they needed a rehearsal space ahead of their Seventh Son of A Seventh Son World Tour. They moved in a few weeks later and, since my apartment was above the studio I could listen to them rehearsing every day for a month. We were lucky enough to open for them on both of their warm-up gigs in Cologne.
JM: Detlef owned the Empire Complex in Cologne where we were based, which included rehearsal rooms for bands, a fitness club, a music club and disco which could host about 1500 guests. Accept had already used our studio to rehearse in, and recommended it to Iron Maiden, who wanted to rehearse for their world tour. Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson came with their road manager; they loved the studio and while we were showing them around, they mentioned the club could be a good venue for a surprise gig. Gino and I both remarked that we'd love to open for them and they just said OK, so that was it basically. We had a great time in the weeks they spent there. Gino is still in contact with Steve Harris to this day. The last time we met them was backstage last year when they played in Germany.
At the time of its release, Hands Off My Toy caused quite a fuss here in Malta. What was the reception in Germany?
GM: When the album came out in Germany we played a few gigs and did TV shows in Germany to promote it. We also gave radio interviews in Malta, where I believe only the vinyl format was available, which we sold quite a good number of. In Germany it was also available on cassette and CD. The promotion abroad worked well, as it landed us some important festivals in Germany and France.
JM: Regionally, the band's profile was quite high, particularly in the area around Cologne, where we had played plenty of gigs. The band’s popularity was growing quite steadily, although along the line we did encounter some unforeseen hiccups that inevitably held the band back from going on to greater things.
Looking back and listening to those songs now, is there anything you would have done differently, both for the record and as a band?
GM: Listening to the album now, I know we could make it better but Scream wanted to reissue the original version, further to which the CD includes 3 bonus tracks we recorded as demos these past few years.
JM: Looking back, yes, there are definitely things I would do differently, especially with my voice. I wasn’t technically trained then, but I am now as vocal coaching is my main activity. As a band, I wish we'd had the time to move on stylistically. When the album came out, Hair Metal was coming to an end and I’m sure we could have evolved with the times.
The album's reissue suggests there is a relevance to the current market. Could this and the three new songs mean High N’ Dry may be getting back together at some point?
GM: It's a question of gauging sales really, but we've agreed to record more tracks this year. We actually recorded the new songs via internet, except for one track which I recorded bass for at Detlef's studio in the Azores. Joe did the vocals at his home studio in Germany.
JM: Detlef and I co-wrote the 3 new songs, with input from Gino and (drummer) Mark Ulrich. At the moment, there are no concrete plans to reunite or tour again. With Gino in Malta, myself in Germany and Detlef in the Azores, the distance makes it all the more complicated to organize, but who knows?
This article was first published in the Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (15 May 2016)