Nazareth's Pete Agnew breaks down new LP 'Tattooed On My Brain' as they celebrate 50th anniversary
In this exclusive interview with Meaww, Nazareth's lone-standing original member and bassist Pete Agnew discusses the unique position of the hard rock legends as they reinvent their sound half a century after formation.
Scottish old-timers and hard rock trailblazers Nazareth celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and they're doing it with style. On Friday, Oct. 12, Nazareth will unveil their 24th studio album, 'Tattooed On My Brain.'
While it is difficult, to sum up in few words the history and the influence on the history of rock that an act like Nazareth has had, there is no doubt that they have left an indelible mark. The band originally formed in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1968, releasing their eponymous debut album in 1971.
Featuring vocalist Dan McCafferty, guitarist Manny Charlton, bassist Pete Agnew, and drummer Darrell Sweet in the original lineup, Nazareth broke through to a larger audience when, after supporting Deep Purple on tour, they released the Roger Glover-produced LP 'Razamanaz' in early 1973. A string of hit records including 'Loud 'N’ Proud', 'Rampant', and their biggest success 'Hair of the Dog' (featuring the smash hits 'Love Hurts' and the title track, which was later famously covered by Guns N' Roses) followed, cementing the band's legacy in the history of hard rock.
Nazareth continued on throughout the '80s and '90s, making new studio albums and touring the world, as their lineup went through a string of changes, enduring the ever-changing landscape of rock music, even 50 years after their formation.
Probably the biggest change in the act's lineup came in 2014, when original singer Dan McCafferty had to leave the band for health reasons and with his blessing, Carl Sentance (formerly of Persian Risk, Geezer Butler Band, and Krokus) now fronts the legendary rockers.
"When I made my first album in 1971, I didn't think I'd be making my twenty-fourth album when I was 71," exclaims Pete Agnew in half disbelief. Pete is now the only member of the band left from the original lineup. "We never really knew how long it was going to last at that time. You know, you'd give a year and see how it was next year and so on. But I don't think anybody dreamt that we'd be playing in a rock band for 50 years," he adds during a chat with MEAWW.
"Well a lot of them are still going strong," Pete adds, referring to his peers from the early days. "The Rolling Stones, Uriah Heap, Deep Purple... there's still a lot of us out there," he points out. "All of us guys were just knocking about in London at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. All these bands you know... we all knew each other... just trying to get somewhere, you know. It's quite surprising that many of these guys are still playing," Pete says.
I concurred with Pete and mentioned how Led Zeppelin is also celebrating their 50th anniversary this year and how rock is still kicking up a storm half a century after it hit mainstream success. "It (rock music) will never die," Pete says emphatically. "I think if you come back another 50 years down the lane, there will still be a generation of rock and roll out there."
'Tattooed On My Brain' holds a role of dual importance for Nazareth. On one hand, it cherishes the long and sprawling history of the band while on the other, it marks a whole new direction sonically, what with Carl Sentance's distinct style, a far cry from longtime vocalist Dan McCafferty. It's also an album that has arguably the most graphic and evocative title compared to the previous ones.
Pete spoke about how the band collectively agreed on the title track lending its name to the album after Pete introduced the song to the gang. "I think it's got a good meaning too," Pete says about the curious title. "So many times, people have been doing the review of the album saying, 'Well I heard the album, I like it, and now it's tattooed on my brain!' It's getting used like that, you know?"
"It was a line that I'd heard, you know. It's a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling (as the lyric goes). And I always thought that was a great description for tattoos... how they're feeling at the time. Of course, the feeling doesn't last. But the tattoo is there forever. When I wanted to get those lines into the song... I was thinking... If it's a tattoo on your arm, you can get rid of it with laser surgery or whatever. But if it's tattooed on your brain, it's there forever."
Interestingly though, through 50 years of the rock and roll lifestyle, Pete Agnew confirms that he has zero tattoos on his own person. But that's not stopping him from using his poetic license to the fullest.
Etymology apart, the album's sound also instantly stands out from Nazareth's previous material and is a far cry from their 'Razamanaz' and 'Hair of the Dog' days. Written around the vocal prowess of new vocalist Carl Sentance, the album incorporates several genres, but at its core, remains a hard rocking album.
"It's more of a continuous rock album. The whole album is built up of mainly rock songs," Pete explains. "There's one slow song, but it's a rock album all the way through. More than any other album we've done and we're very happy with it. It's a high energy album, you know."
Talking about Sentance's effect on the new material, Pete added: "Carl had written quite a few songs. And we actually did five of his songs on the album. Because this is his first Nazareth record and we wanted him to be comfortable while doing his first album with us. We recorded his songs first because he knows exactly how he wants to sing them. Because he wrote them, you know. Then we started doing songs that other guys had written. And then you've got to adapt. Then you've gotta start thinking... different ways, different approach... this guy's got a different idea. How the singing should be when he wrote the song. So that's when it becomes a bit more challenging. It was very good that Carl does write and he recognizes the songwriter's intentions. I suppose he knows what it's like to write a song, you know."
"We knew his songs were going to be great. But then he brought a lot of energy to other people's songs," Pete continued. "Some of them were exactly done the way each guy wanted the song. It was fabulous really. He got to see what it was like. Because Nazareth has always been a diverse band with the material. We've always had different kinds of songs, and we've got that on this record as well."
Indeed, many influences are clearly discernable. From the punk-inspired title track to the bluesy slide-guitar heavy 'The Secret Is Out,' to the desert rock flecked 'Push,' the album offers many treats, but overall, as Pete points out, it's an out and out rock album.
While there are many new directions and approaches, the new record still has a few moments of nostalgia firmly planted in it, like the jangly melody 'Rubik's Romance', which Pete revealed was born out of an unfinished song from 1983 that compared the complexity of love to that of a Rubik's cube, while Pete sat and fiddled around with one. "At that time, the Rubik's Cube was like today's PlayStation. It was a big fad all over the world, and I wrote a song with the first line 'More complicated than a Rubik's...' I first wrote the song in 1983 and then forgot all about it," Pete recollected.
"When we got to do this album, I had loads and loads of old tapes. There was one tape I was playing back for some reason, and I flicked it over and thought 'what was it that's on here?' And it was some of the demosI'd done from back then. So here was this song about the Rubik's cube and I thought 'Hey that was a good song there. Let me finish that properly'. So this time around, I actually wrote the rest of the song and took it to the guys, who'd never heard it before. They all liked the song, so we were like 'Let's do it.' Of course, they remember what a Rubik's Cube is but some of the younger people today... I'm sure they have no idea what we're talking about," the 72-year-old rocker said with an amused chuckle.
"It's a little bit of poetic justice, then," I offered. "You've solved your Rubik's puzzle after 35 years."
"I've never thought about it like that. Thanks! I'm going to use that," Pete said as we shared a laugh.
The dynamic of the current lineup has also changed quite a bit, but Pete admits that he's as comfortable as ever with the band. Jimmy Murrison, who is the longest-serving guitarist in the band’s history, handles lead guitars. Pete's son Lee Agnew is on drums now, stepping in for original drummer Darrell Sweet, who passed away at the age of 51 from a heart attack during the tour for the 1999 album 'Boogaloo.'
"All my sons are musicians. I've got five sons," Pete revealed. "When I used to come home from tours, we would all jam together. Lee was all of 10 or 11 then. He's around 47 now. So we've actually been jamming for a very long time. So it was a very natural choice when Darrel died. When we're on the stage, it's not a father-and-son thing. It's the rhythm section. It's the bass player and the drummer," Pete says, before sneaking in a dad-joke: "It's only father-and-son if he's trying to get some money outta me!"
Nazareth is hitting the road in support of the album and the 50th-anniversary celebrations of course. At 72 years of age, Pete sounds as excited as ever about the prospect. The band has a spread of European dates that kicks off on November 9 in Lünen, Germany. They then wind through a few spots in France, Austria, and Switzerland before coming back to finish up again in Neubrandenburg, Germany. You can see the full schedule of dates here.
It's understandable why Nazareth has so many stops throughout Germany. The rock-loving nation has a special place in its heart for Nazareth, where they consistently topped the charts through the 70s. Even during their relative lull in the 80s, Germany never shied from supporting the band and their 1982 single 'Dream On' became a hit single in the country.
"They have a lot of these talent festivals in Germany. All through the summer... all through the year really... they have lots of these festivals where you get big bands to come and play. We've always been a big favorite at those, you know. We have a lot of fun doing that. So we're probably playing Germany more than any other country. Germany has always been a good country for rock bands to tour and it's the same for us."
'Tattooed on My Brain' arrives on Friday, October 12 via Frontiers Music srl. The album will be available on CD, LP, and digital formats and pre-orders are ongoing here.