By Peter Lindblad
There is no rest for the wicked … or Jeff Scott Soto apparently.
Versatility is one of the veteran singer’s calling cards. His tireless work ethic is another. Seemingly always juggling a multitude of projects at one time, Soto’s ability to multi-task and sing with power and dynamic range has made him one of the most in-demand lead throats in hard rock.
It all started for Soto in the early 1980s, when guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen tabbed him to sing on his 1984 debut solo album Rising Force. Soto stuck it out with Malmsteen for one more album, 1985’s Marching Out, but he bristled under Malmsteen’s dictatorial leadership and left to pursue other projects.
One was Talisman, the Swedish melodic hard-rock outfit he fronted from 1990 to 2007. Allowed to moonlight whenever he pleased, Soto – influenced heavily by Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Journey’s Steve Perry, as well as soul singers like Sam Cooke – lent his talents to a wide variety of musical endeavors, including the movie “Rock Star,” which found him joining forces with guitarist Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) and bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken), as well as Steelheart’s Michael Matijevic, in the fictional band Steel Dragon.
Along the way, Soto has sung with the likes of Axel Rudi Pell, Panther, Takara, Eyes and Soul Sirkus, among other bands. In the U.S., he’s probably best known for stepping in for Steve Augeri in Journey on their 2006-2007 tours and singing with the heavy-metal theatrical caravan Trans-Siberian Orchestra in recent years. However, he’s also provided background vocals for such metal and rock luminaries as Lita Ford, Stryper, Glass Tiger, Saigon Kick and the aforementioned Steelheart.
For years, though, Soto has also been friends with Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, and in the summer of 2012, he toured with Queen Extravaganza, the official Queen tribute band that Taylor produced.
As if that weren’t enough, Soto released his solo album Damage Control in the spring of 2012, and in 2013, he plans to tour in support of it. But, there’s the not-so-little matter of his involvement in the super group W.E.T., which releases its sophomore LP, Rise Up, on Feb. 26, via Frontiers Records. Soto is responsible for the “T” portion of W.E.T., having been in Talisman. The other two letters refer to the bands of Erik Martensson, from Swedish pop-metal act Eclipse, and Robert Sall, keyboardist/guitarist for the Swedish melodic rock outfit Work of Art.
Surprisingly heavy, but still infused with big hooks and generous melodies, Rise Up is the successor to W.E.T.’s unexpectedly successful self-titled first album. And it is a complete band effort, whereas the first album saw Soto singing to tracks sent to him by Sall and Martensson. Rounding out W.E.T., a project devised by Frontiers Records President/Founder Serafino Perugino, are guitarist Magnus Henriksson and drummer Robban Back. They’ll be touring in 2013 as well. Soto discussed W.E.T. and his fascinating career in this recent interview.
Peter: I’ve been listening to the new W.E.T. album. It’s very good.
Jeff Scott Soto: We’ve been sitting on this for almost a year because we started working on it earlier in the year, but because we’re all in different bands and all so busy, it was kind of hit and miss as to when we could get together and do it. And then we finally finished it, and then we realized, you know what, it’s not strong enough. Let’s get a couple of other songs on there, and then let’s decide what’s going to make it on. It was really just a total work in progress for almost a year. So, we’re excited to finally get it done and get it out there, and now we’re getting the excitement level building for it.
Peter: The songs are great and the production is really spectacular. Did you want to up the ante from the first one or do you feel that this is not necessarily another step in the progression of W.E.T. but a fuller realization of what you want to do with the band?
JSS: Well, it’s kind of all of the above. The first album was more of a session for me. It was more an idea that I did for the record label. It was just a concept – let’s see if this works. And the fact that it worked and then some … I mean, this thing outsold all of our collective bands individually by more than double. So overall, it was something we didn’t expect, but also with that now thrown into the equation, we realized if we’re going to do a follow-up, let’s do it as a band. Let’s follow up and turn this into something that is real, not just something that was kind of an accident that kind of happened in the studio. And ironically, and I’ve said this a couple of times already, this whole thing came about almost in the same way Talisman came about – and Talisman was my band for 19 years, up to 2009, when my bass player [Marcel Jacob] took his own life – it was kind of an experiment that turned into longevity for part of my career. So that’s kind of how we’re treating this thing. It started as, “Let’s get these guys together who kind of barely know each other and see what can resolve of it.” And now it’s kind of turned into a real thing. So, yeah, we knew we had to up the ante. We knew we had to make the album sound as good as we possibly could. We knew the songs had to be strong. It wasn’t just something that we threw together and said, “Well, okay. Let’s do it as we did before.” We had to put a little more effort behind it if we were going to have people take it seriously.
Peter: From listening to it, it had to be difficult to choose a first single, because every song is radio-friendly. Why did you choose “Learn to Live Again”?
JSS: That’s pretty much out of our hands. That’s when the label comes into play. They helped us decide which songs could be on the final product, but also, they have the final say on what’s going to be the first single that gets out there. As far as we’re concerned, we have no problem with that, because as you said, there are so many strong songs on there. They could have chosen any one of them to be the first single, and we would have said, “Yes,” because we feel that strongly about a lot of the material there.
Peter: Is that one of your favorite songs on the record, or is there another you feel better about?
JSS: You know what? Strangely enough, and on this album, I’m a little closer to the heavier stuff and the ballad stuff, because the AOR, middle-of-the-road rock stuff, the melodic rock stuff, that’s stuff that the first album was built on. We had more of that middle-of-the-road, melodic thing going on there, and so we knew to have that kind of stuff on here would be important, but I don’t think the heavier songs and the ballads were as strong on the first album as they are on the new album. That’s one of the reasons I’m so close to the ballads, and there’s actually an unreleased song on there that I hope at some point gets out there – whether it’s going to be on a compilation, whether it’s going to be on a single – but there’s a song called “Bigger Than Both of Us” that didn’t make it on the final album that’s a ballad and it’s one of my favorites that we did. And for it to be just a bonus track or something that’s going to be floating around, it’s kind of strange that we’re sitting on such a strong song. So it’s weird to actually try to choose one that’s your favorite. It’s kind of like saying, “Which one of your kids is your favorite kid.” You love them all, and you treat them all with the same adoration.
Peter: Before we get into some of the individual songs on the record, it’s such an interesting way that this band came together, and you said before that you didn’t really know the other guys that well. When they first approached you with this idea, what did you think of it?
JSS: Well, it was the label that came to me with it. I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Frontiers Records pretty much since they started. I’ve been with them since 2001, and they came to me with the idea of just having these two guys from two different bands in Sweden co-write some songs and that I would end up singing on them. At first, I was like, “Okay, I’m a bit busy. I don’t know if I’m interested. Let me hear the songs first.” As I started listening to the stuff they were coming up with, I got really, really excited about it. It wasn’t just a studio project for me. I knew it would be something that could be or would be accepted by my fans, but also it’s still a touchy situation when you’re doing something that’s considered a project per se, because a lot of people that end up liking these kinds of things, they realize you’ll never tour, you’ll never follow up, so they don’t get behind them. And so just the idea of doing yet another project that would just be a one-off, that was really the only reservation I had about it. I had known Eric from years past through association s with Marcel and other Swedes. I had seen Eric play before, and I met him a few times, but I didn’t know him in a working environment. And Robert, from Work of Art, I had no idea who this guy was. I hadn’t even listened to his band at that point. So, it was all so new and fresh to me, without any idea of what it was going to be like, but I really liked the songs and with that, it flourished because I got to know these guys especially once we got together to do the videos and the EPK for the album. I got to really know the guys behind the music, and with that, we realized that we’re on to something here. And the fact that Frontiers wanted to do a second album, that’s when we realized if we’re going to do it, let’s do it as a band would do it. Let’s do it, let’s take our time and do it the right way, as opposed to, “You write the songs, you send me the melody, you send me the lyrics, I knock them out and I send them to you” – this is the way a lot of people are doing things today, and I wanted to actually be more involved on this new album, which I am. I’m co-writing a lot of songs on this new one with them.
Peter: It must be interesting to come into a band without any real preconceived notions of what everybody does. Was that a different experience for you?
JSS: Well, yeah, and I just put a lot of trust in my label. They had an idea of what they wanted out of this. They oversaw every aspect of it, the first album, regarding the songs, the song selections, the direction they wanted it, and they trusted in me as well. They didn’t come back to me and say, “Could you do this differently?” Or, “Could you change that?” They gave a thousand percent trust in me that I knew what to do with this kind of music and what I would actually be laying down to complete it. And so that first album, there was a magic behind it, because there wasn’t any interference from the label, aside from them choosing the songs with Eric and Robert in the initial stages of it. This time around, they completely left us alone, and we chose the direction, kind of the mapping out of where we were going to go with the new album. And with that, they know … especially because Eric’s been writing a lot of stuff for a lot of their other artists, like Jimi Jamison; he did an album with Bobby Kimball (Toto) and Jimi Jamison (Survivor), he’s a few things with Frontiers that he’s writing a lot of stuff for them that they’ve got this trust between all of us, knowing what we’re going to deliver working together as well as individually.
Peter: I wanted to ask you about if you remember how some of the songs came about in the studio or the writing process for this record, starting with “Walk Away.”
JSS: “Walk Away” was one of the newer ones. That was one of the ones that came about at the end when we realized we needed something more like that. There were three recent ones … actually, “Rise Up,” we didn’t even have the title of the album. We were just calling it W.E.T. II. And “Rise Up” was also a new one that came about in September, as well as “Walk Away” and “The Moment.” Those three songs were last-minute additions, and we’re just happy they came about because it just happened that Eric was writing, and he said, “Man, I got this new song. I know we’re pretty much happy with the direction we’re going in and what we have, but we’ve got to check these out.” And when he sent me these three, I knew immediately the album would be more complete if we had these three on there. So “Walk Away” was one of those that we … ironically enough, we kind of emulated “Separate Ways” from Journey on this one. It’s got that vibe to it, and I really think the label fell in love so much with it that they wanted to open the album with it.
Peter: I know this doesn’t run through the whole album, but in listening to “The Moment,” in the choruses, it reminds me of Def Leppard, especially in the vocals.
JSS: Oh, okay.
Peter: Did you take anything from them?
JSS: No, but I can hear where you’re using that analogy.
Peter: Just with those big pop choruses, just very strong.
JSS: That’s just how we write. We just have this idea of writing really hooky kinds of choruses and just trying to make the songs as strong as we possibly can. A lot of songs are based on riffs. A lot of songs are based on how great the band is. We wanted the actual songs to stand out more than how well somebody can sing or how well somebody can play guitar.
Peter: One of the tracks that really stands out to me and that I think is a really great closer is “Still Unbroken.” How did that one come about?
JSS: Um, that one went through different stages along the writing. I have earlier versions of it that … the intros and certain parts of it sound completely different. It had a bunch of different trial-and-errors before we decided how it was going to sound, how it was going to end up sounding the way we have it now. But “Still Unbroken” was probably in the earlier stages, the very beginning stages, where we knew we wanted to have as many rock songs to choose from as opposed to just the melodic stuff. The melodic stuff, we can churn that stuff out a lot easier in the sense of that’s where we all come from. We all come from that school and that world of hard rock music, but we also didn’t have heavier rockers on the first album that we were extremely happy with. I think “Invincible” was the only one on the first album that I felt stood out, and I wanted to make sure we had enough rockers on this, so “Still Unbroken” went through those stages of “let’s make this one more hard rock sounding.”
Peter: And how about “Learn to Live Again.” That song just has great hooks.
JSS: Yeah, and that’s another one where Eric and I discussed doing a duet for this album, because Eric, of course, is the lead singer of the band Eclipse. And he’s got a great voice. He’s singing all the background vocals on the album, and he comes up with a lot of the layering and a lot of the parts … I submitted a few ideas, but for the most part, when he’s writing, all these things are swimming in his head as he’s writing the songs. But I wanted to take it to the next step further, especially if we decided to play live. I want to utilize Eric as a lead singer, and not just as a background singer, and I said, “We should do something where …” And we tried a couple things and “Learned to Live Again” seemed to work the best as far as him start off the first line, and then I kick in and then we sing harmonies for the next couple lines. And it just made the most sense, as opposed to doing a duet where we sing entire verses and kind of switch off where a duet would be. We kind of treated it more like the way Styx used to do it back in the day, where one would sing a line and then another one would sing a line and then they’d sing harmony together. And that’s kind of cool.
Peter: There’s so much ground to hit on with your career, it’s been so varied. But I wanted to ask you about the summer of 2012 tour with Queen Extravaganza. How did you become involved in that and what kind of impact did Freddie Mercury have on you as a singer?
JSS: Well, Freddie, he was more than just a singer for me. Every aspect of being a performer I got from Freddie Mercury. He was the mentor, so to speak, of … the king who can actually make someone in the back of a stadium filled with 70,000 or 80,000 people feel like they’re part of the show, as well as the people in the front row. And that’s a hard thing to do. That’s an important lesson to be able to acquire as a student of live performance. So aside from all the things I was inspired from and influenced by as an actual singer, writer and such, it was even his stage persona that was such a massive influence. And to this day when people give me kudos on my stage performance, I owe it all to somebody like Freddie Mercury, who was basically my teacher. I watched how he was able to entertain everybody and not just the people in the first few rows. I’ve been involved with Brian May and Roger Taylor for many, many years and I was with them in the initial talks when they were talking about putting this thing together, and I told them immediately if I can’t be singing with you … and I said it in kind of a joking way, that if I can’t be singing with you guys, I’d love to be a part of this thing, if and when you put it together. And so, of course, they held me to my word and when they pieced it together finally, they did the auditions through the Internet, and that’s the way they did it, but they reserved a spot for me when it was actually all said and done. And it was a great privilege to be a part of it, and it was a lot of fun. It’s great to sing those great songs, and now they’re actually moving on and they’re pursuing it in a different realm now. And I’ve gone back to doing what I’ve got to do, because I’m just swamped. Between doing that and TSO, and W.E.T. and my solo thing … there’s a lot going on right now.
Peter: You really do. I was going to ask you about Damage Control, too, and you’re going on tour for it [in 2013] I believe.
JSS: Yeah, we’re finally hitting Europe in April … April and May. And I eventually hope to get to the U.S. There’s also so much going on in the summertime. There’s a possibility I may be doing some more stuff in the studio and possibly live with [Trans-Siberian Orchestra] next year – not just the winter thing, but some additional things as well, and there’s talk about a possible Talisman reunion in the summertime as well. So between my solo thing and now the W.E.T. album coming out, and now people are going to want W.E.T. live, it’s pretty much a full plate. The plate is running over.
Peter: Talking about Queen again, what songs did you sing on the Queen Extravaganza and what was it like to sing Freddie Mercury’s stuff? Was it easy for you? Did you find anything difficult about it?
JSS: It’s extremely easy for me, because it’s embedded in my brain. I know those lyrics and those songs better than I know my own, strangely enough. I was pretty much the rocker representative of the group, because they’ve got a guy named Marc Martel, who is quite … if you know Queen Extravaganza, you know who this guy is. And he’s very good at all aspects of Queen, but they also knew they might need an edgier [singer] to come up with the stuff like “Stone Cold Crazy” and “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Fat Bottomed Girls.” So that was my role in there. I was more of the hard rocker representation of Queen’s music and the others who were singing lead, they were utilized for what their strengths were. And I was fine with that, because I wouldn’t want to have to try to sing these more obscure songs or one of these novelty songs after somebody like Marc Martel, who does them so well and does them like Freddie. If I did it, it would sound like me doing it, but when I do the rock end of things, it fits. It doesn’t have to sound like Freddie. It doesn’t have to sound like a Queen kind of a take on things. It’s me doing it, but it still represents the song in the proper way.
Peter: Do you have a favorite Queen album?
JSS: Oh, that’s always been a tough one to answer, and I’ve done it in many an interview. I go with the obvious when I answer that. I usually choose A Night at the Opera, just because it’s one of the albums that … well, I mean most of their albums I can listen to from top to bottom. I don’t find any filler, but I have to go with one of the more obscure ones. I have to go with Sheer Heart Attack as my favorite.
Peter: I want to take you back to the beginning of your career. How did you become involved with Yngwie Malmsteen and what do you remember about meeting him for the first time?
JSS: I’ll give you the abridged version. Basically, he left Alcatrazz in 1984. I just happened to be at a friend’s house when the news came out on “MTV News” that he was looking for a singer. And literally, I just sent the cassette in, and – Cinderella-story luck later – I got the call to go meet him. It was a strange meeting and a strange situation to be a part of, but it took three weeks of singing with him at his house and demoing up things until I was finally inducted as the permanent singer of the band. And even the first two songs – the only songs that had vocals on them on the first album, the debut, Rising Force album – I didn’t know the songs until he put me in the studio. I basically learned them as I was singing them, and he kind of gave me the, “Well, if you sound good on them, then I’ll keep you on them. Otherwise, I’m going to sing on them.” And so I literally had the time I was singing on them to learn them and get a good performance in, and he actually really liked it. Strangely enough, I was 18 years old. I had no idea what I was doing at the time, and I pulled it off.
Peter: What’s it like to work with such a virtuoso guitarist as a singer? Was it a matter of you not wanting to step on any toes?
JSS: Well, yeah, and tongue in cheek, I usually answer that the same way. I didn’t really work with him; I worked for him. There were a few times where he kind of let me do my own thing when it was time for it, and we were collaborating and co-writing songs together, but he always had final say. He had a vision of what he wanted, and if it strayed too far from that vision, then he would cut it. It was a great situation for me as far as cutting my teeth in the business, but it also was a frustrating one, which led me to not sing with him too long because I was too strong-headed over where I wanted to go and I knew I wasn’t going to get that singing with him too long.
Peter: I know we don’t have too much time left, but you mentioned the Talisman reunion. It must have been so tough to get Talisman going because of all the label stuff. Do you feel as if you have unfinished business with Talisman?
JSS: Yes and no. I understand what bands go through, bands like Queen and bands like Journey, what they have to go through to have to replace somebody who is such a key figure in the band to continue. Now, we didn’t have the success that those two bands had. We didn’t have the interest and the sales of those bands, so of course, those bands to continue they have to find the right people. They have to be the right decision to move on. I don’t feel personally that there’s a reason to continue Talisman without Marcel [Jacob]. I wouldn’t want to record new albums and go on tour with Talisman without him, because I felt the same way those bands feel, that the body work was there because of that nucleus. And without that, it’s just kind of bastardizing the situation. Now, we do have surviving members of the band. We do have a body of work that deserves to be heard, and that’s what I’m more interested in. I’d rather reunite with the guys and play some shows and celebrate what we created, as opposed to just continue and try to come up with something that sounds like a continuation of what we already did.
Peter: Well, you talked about learning so much from Freddie about stage presence and singing to a live audience. How does that carry over to your work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
JSS: Well, TSO is a whole different animal. I mean, of course I still utilize my own persona and what I have to offer as an artist, but there’s more theatrics in the sense of … like musical theater behind Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which I never was into, I never followed, even while loving bands like Queen and Styx, who were very musical-theater-sounding rock bands, they didn’t sound like that to me. To me, they didn’t sound like a cast from “Les Miserables” or “Chicago” or one of those musical-theater numbers. With TSO, I have to kind of engulf myself into that world. I have to learn a little bit about it, because it is about going into characters. It’s not just about singing the songs. I can take any one of those songs and just sing circles around them, but it’s not about the performance of the songs as a vocalist. It’s more about the performance of the songs as a character. There are two different worlds there that I had to learn, and I look at it as an extension to who I am and learn something new and challenge myself into doing something that I’d never done before. That’s one of the reasons why TSO has become such an important part of my life, because I am now learning something different that I never had in my life. And I’m now able to now maybe, possibly utilize it to do something on my own.
Peter: Doing the vocals for the movie “Rock Star,” did that prepare you in any way for Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
JSS: Not at all. I went in there and sang the way Jeff Scott Soto would be singing in Steel Dragon.
Peter: Looking back on the experience now, was it something you enjoyed?
JSS: Absolutely, a thousand percent. I had so much fun with that. I’m longtime friends with Zakk [Wylde, of Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne] and [ex-Dokken bassist] Jeff Pilson. Just to be a part of that whole experience with those guys, it felt like even though it was a fictitious band, it felt like we were a real band for the time we were in the studio putting that stuff together.
Peter: What do you think of the movie now?
JSS: I still love it. I loved it then. I thought it was tongue-in-cheek and there were parts of it that were, eh? And there were a lot of parts I really liked, and I think it still holds up. If we didn’t have the tragedy of 9/11, that occurred literally days after the release of the movie, I think it would have had a better chance.
Peter: Talking about tragedy and the new album, from a lot of uplifting and hopeful songs, with the tragedy that happened in Newtown, Conn. it seems like a perfect time for this kind of a record.
JSS: Anytime there’s positivity out there … I mean, there’s enough negativity in the world that we have to deal with, and we’re going to be dealing with it, it’s just the world we live in today. So I think it’s good to have some positivity when we can get it, just because we need it at this point in time.
But W.E.T. Rise Up Here: http://www.merchdirect.com/Frontiers/WET/CDs/RiseUpdigipak/?productid=16755
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