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Looking For The Shimmering Rainbow: The Jeff Westlake Interview
Hydrogyn founder and guitarist Jeff Westlake, refusing to fade away, breaks the crystal ball and builds a new life from the past.

                                    

The hard rock outfit known as Hydrogyn out of Ashland, Kentucky has seen many changes since it started back in 2004. Formed by the husband and wife team of guitarist Jeff Westlake and vocalist Julie Westlake with guitarist Jeff Boggs, the band started creating a sound and look that garnered attention from some of the top names in the industry. Big performances, endorsements and professional video production were to follow. Hiring Michael Wagener to produce their sophomore effort, Bombshell, the band found themselves riding three Billboard charts ("Top Heatseeker Northeast,” "Top Internet Albums,” and "Top Heatseeker”). This was an act that was on the verge of super stardom. As the band prepared for their third album, Deadly Passions, former Dio guitarist Craig Goldy was brought in to start the writing process. With a tour announced that featured Goldy on guitar, disagreements led to Goldy’s departure and the band widdled down to a four-piece outfit. As the band laid low, and singer Julie Westlake tended to her maternal instincts and health issues, more heavy hitters were brought in for the band’s next record, Judgement. Former Megadeth guitarist Jeff Young wrote and recorded with Jeff Westlake, and King’s X singer/bassist dUg Pinnick was brought in for a track. But, a falling out between Young and singer Julie Westlake caused the band to splinter. Although the band found its way onto the Billboard charts once again with Judgement, Jeff and Julie Westlake found themselves alone. After another hiatus, which found Julie hospitalized with a life-threatening thyroid issue, the band re-emerged with their excellent Private Sessions record. The harmony was short-lived, though. As the band splintered and the marriage of Jeff and Julie followed suit, the band would eventually see the biggest change in its history.


Enter vocalist Erica Parrott.

With a darker skin tone and a smaller cup size, Erica Parrott provides a whole different image for the newly re-invented Hydrogyn. The curvy “rocker chick” image doesn't seem to fit the band persona any longer. Instead of the band looking like they just bounced out of a strip club, they now appear to be the rebels that dwell in the alleyway behind it. With a gritty rasp and a much more punishing musical repertoire, Parrott gives the band a more devastating look and sound for a whole new generation of "fist in your face" heavy metal fans.



I talked to guitarist Jeff Westlake about Hydrogyn’s latest record, Redemption, and what the addition of Erica Parrott means for the band. We also discussed Westlake’s history with Michael Wagener, his upcoming solo project, and his love for all things Ronnie James Dio.


DM:  Tell me about the music on this new Redemption record.

JW:  The majority of this album was written between 2012 and 2015 and just never had anything done with it because Julie didn’t like it. She thought it was too aggressive. She just couldn’t find a way to get into it. When Erica came in, the very first song we gave her was probably sitting around for almost three years. I gave it to her and she just went with it, and loved it. I knew right then and there that this was going to be a chance to go a little thicker and expand a little bit more. The really cool thing about Erica is she has that ability to scream and really get that rasp. That allowed me as a producer, to go back into the songs and have little vocal parts coming in here and coming in there, and little ambient-type things. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of people is that there is so much texturing in the vocals. It lent itself to that. She heard it, she did it. Julie wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t even try it. She had to be comfortable with it, and I guess everyone has to be comfortable.

I think there’s only two songs that really were current pieces of music. “Fixir” was one of those songs, and the other song was “My Redemption”. Everything else is music that had been sitting there for a long time, and I had originally started to look at it for a solo project. Erica came in and said, ‘Will you just play me all of this music and let me listen to it?’ I said yeah, and she sat there and picked out what she loved, and you got Redemption!


DM:  You’ve worked with producer Michael Wagener quite a bit in the past. Did you ever think about bringing in Michael for the Redemption album?

JW:  No, never a thought. Michael always had a different vision of Hydrogyn than even what we had when Julie was in the band. I knew this album was going to be heavy and aggressive, and I just didn’t see him fitting in. When we did Deadly Passions, Michael didn’t agree with a lot of the material we had going with Deadly Passions. Be what it may, you can’t argue with a guy that’s 100 million sold, but that was also at a time when music was a lot different than it is now. He’s a great guy, of course. We’ve been close for a lot of years. I knew it wasn’t a fit with the situation. We wanted to make a heavier, or stronger record, and Erica definitely brings out a whole lot more of an aggressive side, vocally. I knew that Michael wouldn’t dig it, so we never even went down that road. 


DM:  Michael wanted a more accessible, “radio friendly” sound?

JW:  Yeah, he did the Bombshell record, that was his production. You kinda get an idea of where he wanted to be and where he wanted the band to go. And like I said, you can’t argue with a guy that’s done what he’s done. But, even Julie wanted a heavier sound. The only difference between Julie and Erica, is Erica has that grit in her voice and she has that ability to do the heavier stuff. Julie wanted to do it, but Julie took a different approach because her voice is more clean and more pure, and she couldn’t really work the rasp into it and get aggressive. There is no arguing that Julie’s voice is amazing, but this allowed us to be the band we wanted to be. The EP, Break The Chains, and Private Sessions were basically written around Julie because she wanted to go that route. Well, it wasn’t necessarily what the band wanted to do, so we ended up getting almost a whole different band in for those two things because the original guys wanted to go a different direction.


DM:  Erica and Julie are two completely different singers. Are there any songs from the band’s past that you just don’t see Erica doing? 

JW:  There are a couple tracks that I won’t attempt because they’re personal songs for Julie. They were written lyrically by Julie, and they had personal meaning to Julie. I would never attempt them out of respect for Julie. As far as the whole catalog, I don’t see anything that Erica can’t pull off. So far, in rehearsals, we haven’t heard anything that Erica can’t pull off. That’s the impressive part. The old songs like “Blind,” and “Breaking Me Down,” and “Deadly Passions” completely have a different feel now. Erica has the ability to sound identical to Julie, it’s really scary. We’ve looked at each other in rehearsal before and been like, ‘Whoa!’ But she breathes a different energy to the music, and you feel the energy of the band. Once you feel something like that you can’t help but just go with it, and that’s what we did.


DM:  I would love to hear the older albums re-done with Erica on vocals.

JW:  We’ve actually talked about doing exactly that very thing! There is a possibility of it.


DM:  Tell me about your solo album In The Key Of Blue.

JW:  In The Key Of Blue is going to be something nobody is going to expect. It’s got a rock vibe, it’s got some jazz vibes, and it’s got blues vibes throughout the entire record. There are two hardcore blues songs on the album, and then there’s a bunch of other stuff that has just kind of developed into my own thing. What’s really cool about this record is that it’s all natural. When I go in to write for Hydrogyn I have to take a certain way. Hydrogyn is about heavy riffs and quick, short, catchy solos, and great vocals, and big catchy chorus hooks and stuff like that. And I have to apply that to every song because the fans have come to expect that, but with this album there was nothing about it. It was just like, “Hey, this is what I’m writing. This is what’s going on.” There was no pre-conceived notions, nothing ‘holding me to the fire,’ so to speak. It was really nice, after all this time, to be able to do an album that way and have it come out the way that it came out. The album will be out May 19th and I’m super stoked about it.



DM:  You’re in Ashland, Kentucky, not exactly the music capital of the world. Have you ever considered relocating to, say, Nashville or L.A.?

JW:  I actually thought about that 10 years ago, and at the time Julie didn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t move to Nashville now. You couldn’t give me a house! I had thought about, but with the world the way it is now, with the internet and social media and everything, you can do it. It’s about being able to just do what you do and get it out to the right places, because at the end of the day you could be in Nashville and you can be in L.A., but if people aren’t seeing what you’re doing it doesn’t matter who you know and who you work with. 

We worked on Bombshell with Michael Wagener. Having his name behind it did make a difference and it did help, but it didn’t help in a way that you think it would. It doesn’t make you an instant platinum success, and it doesn’t do this and it doesn’t do that. A lot of it still comes down to just rolling up the sleeves and getting to work, man.


DM:  If you could throw only one album in the suitcase, which one would it be?

JW:  Black Sabbath - Mob Rules. To me that album was better than Heaven & Hell. It was better than Heaven & Hell the day it came out. It’s better than Heaven & Hell today. Although Heaven & Hell is a classic iconic album and everybody thinks the world of it - and you should, it’s a great album - Mob Rules was just a better album production-wise, songwriting-wise, [and] performance-wise. I think Vinny Appice being included into the Sabbath fold brought a stronger approach. Bill Ward is kinda like that jazz, happy-go-lucky, free drummer back there. When Vinny got there, what Ronnie was wanting to do really came to life. For me, if I have the Mob Rules I can make it through the day!


DM:  If you could work with any band or musician out there, who would it be?

JW:  Well, it would’ve been Ronnie [James Dio]. (laughs) I really think there would be a lot of excitement in working with Steven Tyler too, because I think he’s just stupid talented.


DM:  Will you be going out on tour?

JW:  I’m in rehearsals with the solo project right now. I just put the live band together. And Hydrogyn, we’re ready to go. I’m getting ready to get into conversations with our management and see what we can do about that. This is not something that we’re releasing and then going “Oh wow, I hope it goes well.” We want to tour. We’re ready to tour on both sides - on the solo and the Hydrogyn level. So that’s something, as far as I’m concerned, that has to happen inside of this year.




Read the review of
Redemption, the latest from Hydrogyn! Click here!
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