Being Anvil

After 35 years of beating on fame's door without passing through it, the Canadian metal band's mystique grows thanks to an unwavering dedication to rocking hard . . . which is far from easy.

Photo by Katrina Stubson

Anvil was just in the Twin Cities. The Canadian heavy metal band known to fans from cult favorite documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil (not to mention as an influence to Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth), has released 15 albums and played countless shows from bar halls to arenas since 1978, yet they still remain largely anonymous.

In the documentary, the bandmates star as the underdogs you can't help but root for. You love them for their tenacity, if for nothing else, and the deep friendship between guitarist and singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner strikes an emotional chord. Film popularity (evidently) doesn’t always translate to album sales, but the band is still one of the most hard working, tour-grinding outfits out there. In an era where '80s metal bands of all repute are firing up reunion tour buses or working the state fair circuit, Anvil is still making new music that’s true to who they are. They’re not pinning their tour success on churning up nostalgia in 40-somethings. They’re out there earning new fans.

At 10:45 a.m. the morning of their St. Paul show, sitting in my truck in the parking lot of the Super America on Lake between 44th and 43rd, I called Lips to set up a time for the in-person interview I’d arranged through their publicist. I wanted to meet the band in person so I could really get a sense of these guys and, let’s face it, also to get a few albums signed. But this is rock, and you’ve gotta roll with what you get.

Hey, is this Lips?
Yeah. Who’s this? [He sounded like he just woke up and later, when we met in person after the show and I told him who I was, he said, “Oh yeah, the wake up call interview.”]

Jorge Evans from Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Chris Pacifico set up an interview for us when you get into town.
Oh yeah. We just left Milwaukee.

Alright—do you want me to give you a call later when you’re in town and we can set this up? Well, I mean, I’m not doing anything right now. Just sitting in a van waiting to get where we’re going. Why can’t we do it now?

Works for me. Have you ever played the Twin Cities before?
Where? When are we going there?

Minneapolis or St. Paul? You’re playing here tonight.
[Muted, talking to someone else in the van.] 
No, we’ve never played there. 
[They have, in fact, played the Twin Cities, just never the Amsterdam Bar & Hall.]

You’re touring the Midwest. What’s different about playing a Midwest show versus, say, New York City?
Everything is . . . I prefer not to compare. There’s no consistency. It’s like comparing a night in Singapore to a night in Melbourne. You know what I mean? The personality of the people at the moment, in the room, is what I think of. But I don’t like to think about it in terms of people. It’s a rock show, man.

Fair enough. So what about the difference between small clubs and arenas—which do you prefer?
The job remains the same if we’re playing for 10 people or a thousand. We put the same effort in no matter what. In smaller places I can see everyone and look them in the eye. On big stages the lights are blinding and it feels like there’s no one out there, you know what I mean?

I’ve obviously seen the movie. You guys seem to love touring—I mean, you love the fans, you love seeing them—but how do you keep it fun after 37 years?
It’s part of what we are. If you don’t care about your fans, you have no business being a musician. What are you doing? Why would you want to become famous if you want to go hide away? I mean, there are a lot of musicians that carry on that way, and all I can say is, it’s really too bad for them. Really sad. They don’t deserve what they have. That’s my outlook.

My job—if they call it a job—is not complete until I’ve shaken the hands of hundreds of fans after every show. It’s one thing to go play for people, but it’s completely another world to go out and meet them. And it’s really important. It’s not like I’m obligated to, OK? It’s that I desire to.

In the movie and in other interviews I've read, you're quoted as saying “99.9% of bands don’t get paid.” With payment from album sales negligible, it all comes down to touring and live shows. At the same time, it’s easier to record your own album than it ever has been, do you agree? 

Oh yeah, it’s absolutely easier and a lot less expensive. But let’s face it, and know it as a fact, the quality’s gone down the shitter without any question. Music that is unproduced and undirected and unmanaged is garbage. Most of it. There is no filtering system. 

And even the famous bands, everybody saw—all these musicians and, whatever, business, music business people saw—the Anvil movie and now everybody’s gone out to make movies because it’s not enough to record a record anymore. Or make music. And all these bands are coming out with movies that are essentially the same thing. Trying to make themselves look like they’re big rock stars when they can’t fill a toilet, you know? 

On the other side of the coin, you see some of these young bands coming up and they caught on to what I’m saying. We go up the west coast and all the bands have got singers! Real singers. Guys that are actually trying to sing. The athletic aspect of trying to sing rather than just try to yell and scream and be indescribable, you know what I mean? So there’s a marked difference. And, you know, without record labels, there’s virtually no direction out there.

Change of subject: Are you guys hockey fans?
Are we hockey fans? To a certain level. I mean, being Canadian, it’s a part of our environment. It’s like asking if you like baseball or football. I mean, come on man, we all know that America loves their football. Let’s just talk about the stuff that goes on—you almost have a football weekend.

In Minnesota our unofficial motto is “State of Hockey.” And, although we’ve famously lost an NHL team to Dallas, we have a certain way of looking down our nose at hockey teams that flourish in warm weather climate. How do Canadians look at teams that are in Anaheim or Tampa Bay?
Oh, it’s funny because, as Canadians, the way we look at it, most of the entire league is Canadian anyway. [Laughter.] I mean, how does someone in Florida become a hockey player unless they trained in Canada. And where ya gonna find ice? I don’t know. I’m into music more than anything else, so sports are an extraordinarily secondary aspect to the way I look at things. But obviously, coming from Canada I can’t help but acknowledge what’s in my environment—to the point where, you know, we have the song “Blood on the Ice,” I’m not even sure if you’re aware of that, but . . .

I’m aware.
Where that was inspired from, interestingly, is the guy in our movie that snorts beer through his nose . . . You know who I’m talking about?

The guy that we call Mad Dog.

Well, Mad Dog came over to my house with—I don’t know, this has got to be 20 years ago—and he had a VHS tape of two and a half hours of nothing but hockey fights. And I just sat down and jotted down all the things that were being said during the hockey fights. There’s a jam in the corner! and all the different terms that were being expressed, and I just made them into the lyrics. So, it’s in my environment and you can’t help it. My favorite team is the Montreal Canadians because that’s sort of the heart of where hockey is. The best hockey players have always come from French Canada, you know what I mean? So it’s my favorite team and that’s how I kind of look at it.

And they’re in the playoffs and doing pretty well.
Yeah, no doubt. Hab or not, they’re going to win the cup, I tell you mister . . .

OK, last question: I’m going to be at the show tonight. What can I expect?
You can expect to see three guys having the time of their life. That’s what you can expect to see. And we’re going to let you in on our party. That’s what it is, man. We have the best moments in our life when we’re up on stage and we just hope that the audience joins us in those sentiments. And that’s what we do. It’s a pure, honest joy.

Post-Show Postscript

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect that night. I hoped that Lips was right. I hoped I was going to see some quality heavy metal. I hoped that they would give it everything and the crowd would return the feeling.

The lights dimmed out and the stage lights went up. The band came out, picked up their instruments, and wailed.

Showing immense love for his fans, Lips stepped down from the Amsterdam’s two-foot-tall stage to play the opening licks in the middle of the crowd, taking time to look at everyone gathered around and pausing for pictures, all while tearingup the heavy fan favorite “666.” It was clear from the first moment that Lips meant it when he said he would let the fans in on their party.

Throughout the night, the front men (Lips and bassist Sal Italiano) would switch sides of the stage, engaging the crowd thoroughly and evenly. And when Lips said he liked to look his fans in the eye, he meant it. More than once I knew I was being directly looked at and thanked, in a way, for showing up. Not one person in that room didn’t get the same experience.

So I was obviously under the charismatic spell of this Canadian metal band that could. Was it a false sense of nostalgia? Was it the underdog aspect to their professional identity? Here’s the thing about Anvil: They’re musicians at the top of their game. Robb Reiner mixed swing beats and speed metal on the drums, and Sal Italiano’s bass work could put down most bassists today. And Lips, of course, is the showman he’s always been, with the technical skill to shred circles around nearly anyone.

Even if you’re not a fan of heavy metal, this is a band to see. If you’re sensitive to shredding guitars, put in some earplugs. Half the pleasure is just watching the performance. And if you do get a chance to see them, be sure to stick around afterward. They really do take the time to meet everyone, sign anything, and thank you for coming.

It’s never been easy being in a band. It certainly hasn’t been easy for Anvil. Their documentary didn’t make them rock stars again—they never stopped being rock stars, even if at times only they knew it.

As Lips said at the show, “You can’t avoid growing older. Growing up, however, is optional.”