POUR SOME SUGAR ON SLUDGE
Here’s a Metal Sludge exclusive with Rock Sugar singer Jess Harnell
By Gerry Gittelson
Metal Sludge Editor at Large
HOLLYWOOD — From of the ashes of former Sunset Strip sensations Loud & Clear comes Rock Sugar, featuring singer Jess Harnell, an underground fav from back in the day who has evolved into one of rock’s biggest new success stories.
Harnell is an extraordinarily gifted singer with a Steve Perry-style voice, and he is brimming with personality, too. Why Harnell and Loud & Clear never sold millions is among rock’s great mysteries, but Rock Sugar is making up for lost time.
The band plays mash-ups – two or more songs mixed together – and Rock Sugar hit it big in 2010 with a series of live performances and an amazing CD called “Reimaginator” – only to have the record pulled from shelves because of a legal dispute by one artist who shall remain unnamed because the case is in litigation.
All that wiped away a year or so from Rock Sugar’s potential rise to stardom, but they’re back again with a Christmas radio hit in some territories and plans for another CD that hopefully will find the light of day and boost Rock Sugar to the upper-echelons via the a same platform of Steel Panther.
Rock Sugar features gifted guitarist Chuck Duran from Loud & Clear and drummer Alex Track, and both were key figures in the recording of the record. But Jess Harnell is the king. He’s among the world’s top voiceover performers with a bunch of successful cartoon voices and television work, but he is at his best on stage with people cheering.
Without further ado, here is what the curly-haired Harnell had to say.
METAL SLUDGE: When Loud & Clear never made it, did you think it was all over for you? How did you keep your ambition for so long?
JESS HARNELL: I’ve always been ambitious since day one, as a little kid, even when I was five years old. Back with Loud & Clear, even though we had a great stage show and played in some awesome clubs, I think we were one of the biggest bands at one point. But right around that time, when we were literally in negotiations with Atlantic Records, that whole scene ended. It was the end of that.
SLUDGE: You play these mash-ups, and they’re really clever. I like it a lot.
HARNELL: With Rock Sugar, it’s a surprise every minute. You could say it’s like a trip down memory lane but with a different ending. DJs have done mash-ups before, but we’re the first band to do mash-ups, especially in our case, where there’s a theme of taking the best metal songs from the ‘80s and mash ‘em up with the best pop songs of the ‘80s – both at the same time. It’s no easy feat, especially when you’re drunk, and that’s why I don’t drink.
SLUDGE: Yes, Jess, we went to high school together at Birmingham High, so I’ve known you a long time. You’ve never taken a drink or a drug in your life, not even a cigarette. Are you the ONLY rock guy from back in the day that can say that?
HARNELL: I don’t need any of that because in real life, if I was any looser, I’d be Jell-o. I guess I might be the only one, at least in this industry. But I can remember being with Sam Kinison one night at Spice club (on Hollywood Boulevard), and he had cereal bowl of cocaine. A whole cereal bowl. He was like, “Do you want some?” I was like, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea, man.” I told him that I’m on 10 every single minute, and if you give me some of that, I’ll be like the Tasmanian devil let loose in your bedroom.
Live in the UK @ Download Festival
SLUDGE: On your CD, I love track No. 13, “Dreaming of a Whole Lotta Breakfast,”
HARNELL: Yeah, it goes from “Dream On” to “Breakfast in America” to “Whole Lotta Love.” Chuck Duran did a great job doing the arrangements for all these songs, and some of them came about in strange ways. A lot of it is Chuck. He’s so good, just so talented. He figures out how to bridge the gap between the songs, and I just hope he finds it. Chuck is big, he owns World Digitals in Sherman Oaks We recorded the CD at Track Entertainment in Sherman Oaks. They’re next door to each other.
SLUDGE: That would be Alex Track. He says he doesn’t get enough credit!
HARNELL: I’m sure he did say that. His studio was a big part of it.
SLUDGE: And then you got shut down because one of the original artists complained, right?
HARNELL: Yeah, I don’t want to say who it is. Let’s just say, as a singer, this guy made a big impression on me. On our record, we tried to make it sound as close as we could, and this one was a little too close. We jumped through all these hoops to prove it was really us, but we’re at a stalemate because he says it still SOUNDS too much like him, so legally we can’t sell the record. One song, just one song held us back. We were hoping to avoid this because I really like that song, and you know me. This guy was my hero, too.
SLUDGE: I listened, too, and I think it does sound like the original, too. A lot of stuff, even the Queen stuff, sounds too good to be true. Are you sure you didn’t just play over the original tracks on some of these, Jess?
HARNELL: Hell no. Nothing. You can come to the studio, and we can go over every track. We can get some pizza. It will just like going to the Rainbow together like in the old days.
SLUDGE: Well, even if the CD is messed up, you’ve played some huge shows. Rock Sugar doesn’t play live often, but when you do, it’s big.
HARNELL: That’s true. We played one warmup gig in Elgin, Illinois, and second show was in front of 15,000 with Vince Neil and 3 Doors Down. Then, 3 Doors Down couldn’t make it, so we came and played again on the same day, and by this time there were 25,000.
SLUDGE: Were you nervous.
HARNELL: Hell yeah, I was. They were going to riot and throw bottles, and we got them cheering like crazy within 30 seconds. Chuck was so worried right before that he didn’t want to do it. We’ve played festivals and arenas and even played the Download Festival in England in front of like 100,000 people. Every time we’re up there, I just thank god.
SLUDGE: The crowds like it?
HARNELL: Dude, I’ve been doing this for a while, and I’ve never seen happier people than the crowd at a Rock Sugar show. It’s really kind of cool. They start laughing at the some of the stuff when Madonna goes into AC/DC. When it works, there is nothing sweeter. I look out and see a big biker dude with a Metallica shirt, and he’s singing along to “Like a Prayer” by Madonna. It’s fucking amazing.
Jess Harnell lettting it rip
SLUDGE: You took most of the summer off this past summer, though.
HARNELL: Well, we all have other things we’re doing, too, and we’ve done well, but now if the gigs don’t make sense financially, we don’t do them. We do get a lot of offers, though, and I’m lucky enough to pick and choose the ones we want to do. But going out and doing 50 shows isn’t going to work because I’m busy doing cartoon voices all day. In the voiceover business, there is offseason, so I have stuff going on all the time, and I’m lucky enough to be in this position. In L.A., we’re not really doing clubs, but we have so many friends that wish we would.
SLUDGE: Well, you did do that great Christmas single, “Don’t Stop the Santa Man,” which got some national airplay.
HARNELL: We finally decided to get a little creative. We actually have a bunch of new songs, seven really solid ideas. The Christmas song mixes Metallica with Journey and Santa Claus, and we also did another song called “Since Your Immigrant’s been a Baracuda” with Kelly Clarkson and Led Zep and Heart’s “Barracuda” thrown in. It’s on Youtube, I think. The Christmas song is all over the place. It’s got some funny lines, and it’s really cool, and then radio got hold of it.
SLUDGE: When Loud & Clear didn’t break but you had a good career going in voiceover, did you ever consider giving up the idea of being a rock singer?
HARNELL: No, never. The voiceover work and the jingles just kind of took off, and one thing led to another. The funny thing is, the best part of Rock Sugar, is I spent my whole life beating my head against the wall trying to figure out how to be in the music business and get paid. You know, playing the Whisky and trying to split $600 with four guys and not having enough to live on, and then I came up with this little idea, kind of funny little idea, and the next thing I know, I’m getting picked up in limos and playing the Download Festival. If you would have told me this when I was 13, it would have been fantasy, but here I am at 48, and it’s really happened.
Gerry Gittelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch "Don’t Stop the Sandman" by Rock Sugar