John Corabi: Raw & Exposed

 By Caroline Paone

You know John Corabi’s voice…raspy, almost tangible…a voice uncommon in today’s singers. Many have taken singing lessons with the hopes of replicating his unique sound. It’s his signature. But most listeners discovered Corabi in the early nineties when he replaced Vince Neil in Motley Crue. Those were tough times for heavy bands; music consumers were on a different track (and the industry was not responsive to some rock and metal). This brand of music either went underground or suffered an identity crisis.

During that hazy time, Corabi’s “crew” asked him to leave. However, the band’s self-titled release Motley Crue actually charted at #7, and is a killer disk (even a favorite of guitarist Mick Mars). So that’s your little post-grunge history lesson, but rather than focus on the drama of the past for this interview, I choose to move forward, profiling the songwriter/performer John Corabi today. He’s a “30-days-in-the-hole,” “you-wear-it-well” kinda guy, with a knack for writing quality songs.

Promoting his latest offering, Unplugged, the vocalist-guitarist reminds us why an acoustic recording is a timeless affair. Remember when countless musicians sat atop oriental rugs and stripped down their songs to much applause? Playing acoustically fit Bon Jovi, GN’R and STP like gloves, and, similarly, it suits Corabi so very well. Unplugged, undresses rock-metal tunes, leaving them raw and exposed; perhaps with a blunter edge, fusing gritty vocals and rich, textural nuances.

Corabi and his band revamp several songs from his time in The Scream, Motley Crue, and Union. Additionally, Unplugged has five viable new tunes, filled with melodic guitar and rich harmonies stamped with love-torn, good-lovin’ lyrics. New tunes “Are You Waiting” and “Crash,” propel Corabi forward while saluting his past.

According to Corabi, most of the classic songs remain untouched, save a tweaking. What Unplugged provides is a sense of rawness and realism…a welcome notion in an age of staged “reality” and “catfish” posers. In fact “un” is an appropriate prefix for Mr. Corabi: he’s been un-ceremoniously plucked from Motley Crue, but it’s un-deniable his time there is not what defines him; although his writing for Motley is severely un-derrated. Chatting with the gravely vocalist, is at times he’s un-censored, and he’s refreshingly un-phased by his years as a working musician. Most importantly, his voice is un-deniably rich.

He originally started his music career in the PA-NJ area before traveling to Los Angeles in the mid eighties. Since then, his voice and his life have changed over the years. He’s a performer who took the “road less traveled,” and perhaps that has made all the difference…check out our conversation.

CP: So you’re based in Nashville now, do you still have family here in the Philly area?

John: My brother and sisters all still live in Philadelphia and in the suburbs, and my Dad lives in the Cherry Hill NJ area.

CP: Did you live in the city or the suburbs of Philly? Where did you perform?

John: I lived on Long Island, in Philadelphia, and in the suburbs [of Philly]. I used to play a lot of the cover clubs back there in Wildwood, New Jersey, Delaware, North Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

CP: Before your Scream days, you started on guitar at age 13/14, then played the PA-NJ circuit, but when did you discover that amazing rock voice?

John: You know, it’s weird, the first band that I was in I played guitar. We had a singer, but because we were doing four sets a night, mid-way through the set, I would come out to give him a break. I’d still be playing guitar, but I’d do [sing] stuff like Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Dio, you know, stuff that had a little more grit to it.

I would do three or four songs and then he would come back and finish the set. It just happened one night, there were a couple of guys in the audience who were in bigger bands. A guy named Rick Caldwell, who still lives in that area, an another friend of mine Danny Duffy. They were putting a new band together and they heard me sing, and approached me afterwards. They said, “we want you to sing for our band.” And I was goin, huh? OK.

I didn’t play guitar [in the new band] he just had me fronting, which was kind of unusual and weird for me…to grasp standing there [on stage] in tight pants and a leopard shirt, trying to figure out what to do with my hands (laughs), but it worked out. At that point, that’s when I became like a full-fledged front man I guess.

CP: But even before that, when did you realize your voice was unique?

John: I didn’t look at it, the voice thing, it was weird, I just didn’t think that there was anything that unique about my voice. I said “oh whatever, yeah, I can sing, what do you want me to sing??” It’s weird, my voice has changed so much. At that point, when I first started, I was playing covers singin’ stuff like Heart, “Barracuda,” “Bastille Day” by Rush, and all this crazy shit that I wouldn’t even attempt to sing now. My voice has changed a lot.

Now I think I’ve kind of found my niche and I’ve got this raspy bluesy, Tyler-esque, Rod Stewart-esque, Steve Marriot-esque voice. And, I don’t know, man, now it’s funny everybody goes “ah, you’ve got such a distinguishable voice. Like I can hear your voice, and I know it’s you.” But I still don’t hear it. I’m still like “ah, ok whatever, I’ll do my best,” but I think all singers are a little bit insecure about shit.

CP: Maybe that’s good, it’s what makes an artist real?

John: It’s funny, this friend of mine here in Nashville just sang back up vocals on Robert Plant’s new record. And she was telling me that as legendary and huge, and all that shit that guy’s done, he’s so humble. When he’s in the vocal booth, he’s in there singing, it’s not insecure, but he’s just like “oh, you know does it sound OK?” Like dude, your ROBERT PLANT are you kidding me? Of course it sounds great. That’s what I call LSD, lead-singer-disease. We’re all a bit insecure and just uh, nervous, and over-thinking, and you know whatever. But it’s like your voice is your instrument, it’s your body, it’s a little weird.

CP: Exactly, you could be a bassist or guitar player and get your technique down, but vocals are “either you have it or you don’t,” really.

John: And you can have it, and just for whatever reason it can be there and then it cannot be there. Or you’re kind of into being a certain type of singer. Like a guitar player can learn all different styles of music and he can go from playing in a Zeppelin-type band to playing with somebody like Prince. I have friends that do it all the time, they play in all these different bands and are adaptable. When you’re a singer, your kind of like that’s it. This is what you do. So I can do what I do, and you know, that’s kind of it…the tone isn’t gonna change (laughs) it’s a little difficult to change the tone in a voice.

CP: Being in so many bands over the years, now your fans get to hear your own CD, which I have to say I’ve fallen in love with…so thank you for that.

John: No, thank YOU.

CP: Unplugged is a mix of old and new tunes some from the bands you’ve fronted. Did you write all the new songs?

John: I pretty much either wrote or co-wrote every song on the record.

CP: The song “I Never Loved Her Anyway” is a bit different, it has a sort of twang to it. How did that come to be?

John: That’s actually an old Scream song, from The Scream album. We really didn’t do too much to it, but we did give it a honky tonk feel, and we added some other stuff. If you listen to the original, it’s a pretty funny, tongue-in-cheek little song, but we put a little more Southern-stank on it this time. (laughs)

CP: There were some issues getting your original Unplugged project out, business dealings. How are things going now?

John: I have been doing the bulk of the interviews now that I should have been doing before the record came out. It was supposed to come out on another label and at the eleventh hour they changed their mind. We had recorded it once in a studio, but were having issues with this little indie record label here in town, and they wouldn’t give me the masters. There was this business thing that was total bullshit. Then it got to the point I sat around waiting for it and Universal was gonna put the thing out and distribute it. They were waiting on the record and it was three months of going back and forth.

Finally, I got tired of it and told the guy you got until Friday to give me the masters or I am just gonna scrap this whole thing and start over again. We kind of played poker, and he blinked, and didn’t think I would do it, and he didn’t send the masters at 5 o’clock like I asked. So Saturday I made arrangements with my drummer and guitar player to rerecord it.

CP: Wow, that’s rock and roll for you, or should I say the music business?

John: It’s not that often in the music business that you get to say fuck you to somebody and you actually like deliver or actually mean it. So, it was all good.

CP: How did you approach the recording process? Did you record the music in Nashville, if so what studio?

John: It was actually recorded in my living room. We took my house and made one bedroom a vocal booth, one bedroom a control room, and the front and dining room a recording area. We literally re-recorded the entire record, everything. I recorded it, mixed it, mastered it, and turned it in, in one week.

CP: How did your band react when you told them about redoing the record?

John: I said you guys want to re-record this record? After a bunch of grunting and groaning, they both said yep, we can do this. So I kind of kidnapped the two of those guys for a week.

CP: To me Unplugged is a wonderful pairing of your vocals and the acoustic medium. There’s a very organic aspect to these songs, they seems very natural.

John: For me. It’s funny, but every song that I’ve ever written, from the beginning of time--if you look at the Scream record, the Motley record, the Union stuff that I’ve done-- every song has started off on an acoustic guitar. So for me it IS natural.

CP: You take a classic Union song, “Love, I Don’t Need it Anymore” and tweak it a bit. You extend the words, your phrasing is different. When translating these songs acoustically, was their much improvisation going on?

John: To be honest with you, I could have gone back and listened to the original version and said “oh that’s like that,” but I hear things now and I go “I’m totally seeing it different than the original version. Shit I didn’t even realize that.” This is how I do it acoustically. I have been playing it that way for the last two years or so, even electrically, so this is kind of where it has gone from the very beginning when Bruce (Kulick former Kiss and Union guitarist) and I wrote it and put it on the Union record. There’s me taking some liberties with the vocal lines; it’s morphed itself into this version. But honestly there was no real thought, the microphone went on, the music started, and I just started singing.

CP: You recently toured with Cinderella (his buds from PA) and opened for them with an acoustic set. When you play these songs live, is that a different experience? Do you feed off the audience?

John: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes maybe you wake up and didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before and the voice isn’t feeling as great as it should. So you kind of take liberties here and change things around to suit that night. You know the melody, you know the words, and you play around with it and have fun. I stick to 85 % of the original melody, it’s there, and the rest is me trying to live in the moment and ad-libbing and doing what feels right at that moment.

CP: Sounds like you’re a true stage performer…

John: I don’t know about that? (Laughs)

CP: You covered some classic performers on the work you’ve done with ESP (Eric Singer Project), such as Free. A band like that really suits you, that Paul Rogers type vocal…what performers inspire you?

John: Um, there’s so many singers for so many different things. I love McCartney’s voice on “Oh Darlin” I love Robert Plant, Steven Tyler, Steve Marriot. But I do like some of that kind of funk, R&B, or whatever you want to call it, that old Sly Stone, Ohio Players, Grand Central Station all that old shit. The way they would use their voices was pretty cool, too. I just try and take everything that I think is cool and throw it into the pot, and use a bunch of different elements.

CP: You mentioned the Beatles, the song “Everything’s Alright” has a trippy vibe. Can we discuss some background on that song?

John: The original version is a typical tip-of-the-hat to the Beatles. I had the music and the melody but I was pulling my hair out because I couldn’t think of anything to write about, but I had the melody. Like, what do I want to put forth here? Then my son and I were going for a ride in the car, he wanted to get some ice cream or something. I had him for the weekend. As we were driving I heard a couple Beatles tunes. He was like Dad “I like The Beatles.” He was 9 or 10 (at the time). (I thought) this is never going to happen again in the history. I remember my mom and dad liking the Beatles, I like the Beatles, here’s my son who likes the Beatles, and this is probably happening everywhere in the world. The Beatles are the biggest musical entity ever. Then it was weird, I suddenly thought of the melody of the chorus which was ba da ba ah, (sings) that’s “hello, goodbye,” that’s “good day sunshine.” Ah wait I’m gonna right a song as a tip-of-the-hat to the Beatles.

I went home and I started to make sentences up using all of their song titles. If you really listen to the lyrics, the first verse kind of sets everything up “colors around me, stars, honey is raining from bright blue green skies,” yes your song is playing …rainbows are pointing to Strawberry Fields, the Walrus, made this kind of surreal colorful tripy little lyrical things. So now on this version, where I say (he sings) “Rainbows are pOI-inting to Strawberry Fields” my guitar player goes “Where nothing is IS real” he kind of came up with that Beatles thing and added it in there. To make it all Beatle-esque. It’s really fucking cool, I really like the way this came out.”@

CP: Was there any special reasoning behind the selections for the re-recorded songs? For example why did you choose “Hooligan’s Holiday” from your Motley Crue days?

John: Me and my guys were sitting around at rehearsal for another thing. For this record I didn’t want to do the obvious acoustic songs, so that’s why we tried to pick some things, like “Hooligan’s Holiday” (Motley Crue). It would have been such an easier route for me to do “Robin’s Song” or “October Morning Wind” because they are already acoustic, but I wanted to play around with some stuff. Even showcase my guitar player, Daniel, who is a freak with harmonies; where we could add some of the really cool harmonies and backing vocals.

CP: Is there pressure in being the so called “frontman” in a band? Or No?

John: No, because, even in the biggest places, if I’m playing a festival or something I still try and make it feel smaller. So I see people in the first 5, 6, or 10 rows. In a joking manner, (nobody’s ever gotten mad at me for things) I’ll see somebody in the audience during an electric show and their phone will ring. And they stick their finger in their ear and try and yell into the phone. I’ll stop the band, I’ll go “hold on, hold on, hold on” and the dude or the chick will look up at me, and I’ll go “no no no it’s ok, we’ll wait.” And then the whole place will start looking at that person and laugh. Like “oh my god that’s so fuckin funny he totally stopped the show so that he could finish makin that phone call.” And I’ll go “who you talkin to?” and he’ll be like “my wife.” And I’ll yell in the microphone, “honey, he’ll be home in an hour! I’m almost done.”

I just try and make it fun and humorous, and lighthearted. In all honesty, I say this every day, if a music fan wanted to hear the music they could take their iPod and listen to the music. But if they want to come and have fun and an enjoyable night and a little bit of reckless abandon, or whatever, I want people to laugh. I want people to have a good time. I want people to walk away and go I had no idea I love that guy’s music, but fuck, he’s funny! He’s a cool dude. He’s down to earth.” I’ve always been that way.

CP: Who do you like as a performer?

John: I recently read Rod Stewart’s autobiography and he talks about when he was in Faces. He said “we weren’t a band,” and that’s why it translated to the audience when they were popular. [he said] “we were five guys who were mates, pals, we were buddies. We didn’t give a fuck, We never had a set list.”

Then just recently my girlfriend and I went to go see him here in Nashville and he still has that demeanor. He goes on stage and he sings his songs, and in between, the banter between him and the audience is hilarious. He takes a piss at himself and all the different marriages he’s had. On the video screens behind him he starts showing home photos. You can hear and see his sense of humor, his personality comes across as this jolly, fun- loving bloke. He sounded great but he was fun. I went back on YouTube and watched all these Faces videos. You can see the camaraderie. @

CP: When I look at rock singers today, there are some bands I like but I don’t see anyone like the singers that I grew up watching, like David Lee Roth or Steven Tyler.

John: For me, I’m older than you are, I had David Lee Roth, Steven Tyler, AND Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Tommy Bolin, Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad, Steve Marriot all these huge, rock STARS. The were rock stars. And there is a little bit of a disconnect nowadays. Everything’s so manufactured and everyone’s got to be so serious about shit. Yeah, Dave Roth, he had his shtick, Steven was doing his thing. He didn’t give a fuck about shit but there was, like I said earlier, an element of “reckless abandon” and a lot of the guys had humor.

That’s the one thing, I don’t really take myself all that seriously, I mean I have had some success in the music industry. Maybe not as much as I’d like or maybe not as much as other people think I should have. But you just gotta do what you do at the end of the day we all have to enjoy what we’re doing and want to get out of bed in the morning, and want to continue on. I’m at the point in my life, if I can’t play around, have fun and be honest, then there’s no point. I want the audience to have fun. I don’t take myself all that serious.

CP: You’ve been in all these bands (Angora, Ratt, Brides of Destruction, to name a few) and are still at it…what’s the best part about being a working musician all these years?

John: It’s funny I recently had a conversation with my Dad. My Dad and I, we’ve got a great relationship but when I was younger, I had this chip on my shoulder like I didn’t think he “got me.” I was approaching 50 and I was like man, I was kind of having a weird moment, so my Dad just happened to call and we were talking. I said I’m 50 years old, I don’t really own anything, I kind of live like a lot of people, month to month. Music is hard. It’s a hard thing. I would love to say I had more to show for all the years that I’d been doing music. And he stopped me, we had this weird defining moment, and he said “I gotta tell you when I was younger I wanted to be an artist or do something with art.” Now it’s weird I just realized my Dad is actually an amazing artist, he can draw and paint and he’s very creative and I never knew that was there. When he was younger he met my Mom they got married, and I came along a year later, and he just did what was expected of him.

He said to me you know what John you got married, you went to California with your wife and kids, you wanted to be a musician you got your record deal, you got your Motley Crue thing, you had a lot a money in the bank, and with that money you basically took care of two wives, two kids and your mother who passed away (from lung cancer in 1997). You’ve taken care of your entire family, and still managed to keep your head above water. At the end of the day, you’ve done it all doing what you LOVE to do. It’s all good. I had this weird moment. He goes “you’re a bigger man than most men, but you managed to do it on your own terms. You’re a bigger man than I am.”

I couldn’t believe it. He’s right. There were times I’ve had to Rob Peter to pay Paul like anybody else, but I’ve completely sustained myself and a lot of people in my family just playing guitar and singing, all around the world. I’m good for that.

CP: It’s not an easy life at times?

John: My son is a musician [who is older now]. He toured a couple of times and when he came home he goes “Dad, I have no idea how you did this. He’s like “I’ve done three tours, for seven or eight weeks at a clip, in a van with these guys, barely eating, coming home with no money. I have no idea how you did this?”

I wouldn’t wish it on anybody to a degree, but at the same the only thing I can tell somebody is you gotta live your own life. Sometimes the road less traveled is a harder road, but the rewards in the long run are like what my Dad said. I was able to pay my bills and I still took care of my kids, my ex wives. I paid everything I was supposed to, and wanted to give them. My kids went to good schools, had clothes on their backs. I took care of my Mom financially, when our government let her down. I took care of an uncle of mine who had liver cancer, and you know, he didn’t have enough money. I just did it by playing an “A” chord, just being some drunken, goofball with a guitar and, lyrics. So, I can’t complain. I really can’t complain.

CP: Wow, a lot of people probably don’t know these things about you?

John: Well, that’s one of the things that I’m working on. I am working on a book or whatever.

CP: Not that everyone has to know your every move, but it’s nice.

John: Yeah, it is what it is. The other thing is I don’t sugarcoat it. I’m not one of those people who is going to tell you what I think your readers want to hear. You ask me a question, and I’m gonna give you an honest answer. I really don’t care. Obviously, I’m a musician, I’m an and artist, I’m trying to sell records. So obviously, I want people to like me, but at the same time, I am what I am. I can’t make people like me. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything or make some bullshit up. Whatever. This is how I roll; either like it or hate it.

CP: I appreciate that honesty. At the end of the day, with all the BS in this world, that’s all you can be.

John: Yeah, I am not gonna be the guy that’s gonna give you the interview about going to Japan, and having sex with the five models, while I was drinking Jack Daniels, and driving a Lamborghini. Whatever. You know what I mean? What people tell you sometimes to sell a records. Or to create an image. To me, the people who have the coolest images are the ones who have figured out how to wear their own skin.

The John Corabi Lineup
John Corabi, vocals/guitar
Cheney Brannon, percussion/vocals (formerly of Collective Soul)
Topher Nolen, bass/vocals
D.A. Karkos, guitar/vocals
Matt Farley, percussion/vocals
Bruce Kulick, second guitar on “Hoolgan’s Holiday” and “Man In The Moon” (formerly of Union, Kiss and the millennium’s Grand Funk Railroad).

Crab’s tackle box
Corabi “kept it simple,” in the effects department for his crisp take on acoustic expression. Here’s a sampling of the gear on numbers like “Are You Waiting.”
Acoustic Guitar: Epiphone Masterbuilt
Strings: Elixir strings (gauge 12 E string)
Microphone: Shure 58 for vocals
Epiphone Guitars
Elixir Strings

Old School swag
Gotta love guitar pick and stickers!

RatPakRecords serves up cool options for rockers who love the days of stickers, poster inserts and the like. If you don’t want to go for the iTunes or MP3 downloads, RatPakRecords does a good job of providing an array of fan packages along with CDs. For instance, John C stickers, and four limited-edition guitar picks (one of Motley Crue, Scream, Union, and John Corabi; all with the JC signature on the back).

By the album here