Tony Harnell: From TNT, Starbreaker and Beyond
Tony Harnell: From TNT, Starbreaker and Beyond
The one and only Tony Harnell has been very busy as of later – in addition to his solo band opening for the legendary Stryper, the former TNT vocalist has presented a new Starbreaker masterwork as well as a TNT album entitled Encore Live in Milano all within 2019. And at press time, it was announced that an by a band called LoveKillers would be unveiled at the end of the year with Tony Harnell on guest vocals.
Prior to his show with Stryper in at The Wildhorse Saloon in Nashville, Highwire Daze caught up with Tony Harnell for an all encompassing interview. Topics included the recent passing of Tony Mills, the legendary Shy vocalist who replaced Harnell for a brief tenure in TNT. Harnell also discussed the brand new Starbreaker album, his thoughts on the recent TNT recordings – one live and a studio endeavor with a brand new vocalist – and a whole lot more! Read on…
What was it like being the first American inducted to the Norway’s Rockheim Hall of Fame?
I don’t know what to say about it. It’s an easy question, but it’s not. Well, it was a huge honor. It’s kind of one of those things where when it first happens, the cynical part of my brain can say, “Well, my haters are saying, ‘Who cares? It’s only Norway. Who gives a shit?’ ” And then I step back. And I go, “I don’t know anybody that’s been inducted into the Hall of Fame in any country. So it’s awesome.” [laughter]
After all these years, little things like this mean so much, because it makes you feel all the hard work you did, in my case with those guys, it was off and on for 35 years that it meant something to someone.
Now, you’ve got a show coming up with up with Stryper. What are you looking forward to the most about your show with Stryper? And what could fans expect from this live show?
Well, it’s kind of interesting, because I’ve been wanting to launch sort of the American band that I can be that can play TNT classics with, because I’m not in TNT right now, and people want to hear those songs. So I’ve kind of been putting it off. I’ve thought about it over the years. And this opportunity came up on the Nashville. Nashville’s filled with musicians. I have some great people helping me out. And I was like, “Let’s make this the launch of this then. It’s perfect. It’s at a great venue.” Stryper, those guys are like brothers to me. Michael is, definitely, like a brother to me. And he and his wife, I’ve known for a long time. And it’s just going to be great. The last time we played together was 1987. So there are people pretty excited about sort of reliving that in some way. So yes, it’s going to be fun and exciting, the length of my set is about the same as it was in ’87, also as the opening act back then.
Who are the members that are going to be playing with you?
It’s not like an all-star thing. It’s really amazing. It’s made up of some seasoned musicians that have been around for a while. But they’re still young. But they’re, probably, 30s or 40s. And then there are these two special additions. I found this 16-year-old guitar player here named Max Frye. And he played at this podcast convention that I did and blew me away. He’s kind of the talk of the town. And no one’s really sort of taken him and thrown him into like a little bit of bigger situation. So I thought, “All right. I’ll do it.” [laughter]
At least, we’ll see where it goes. So it’s a combination of upstarts. And I have a girl who is going to do some of the backing vocals. I think she was on, maybe, Idol or something. But she’s really talented. She’s 19. And she’s going to be singing backing vocals. So there’s this really neat combination of the– maybe, I shouldn’t use the word neat. But it’s a cool combination of guys that have been around the block and toured and these upstarts that are super talented. So it’s cool.
Do you think with this band you’ll do any Starbreaker or Westworld songs?
Originally, we were going to do a little bit longer set. But when I, finally, got the set time, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to drop my pride and my need to…” You know, I do have a new music I want to present. And, obviously, as an artist, I want to show everybody that I’ve moved on.
I released more music outside TNT than I did with TNT. And it’s kind of all over the map. Some of it’s really really classic hard rock like Westworld. Some of it is more metal-like Starbreaker. And then there is the other stuff I’ve done which is more of the acoustic stuff and kind of more middle rock, straight-ahead rock stuff like my solo stuff is.
So I really wanted to showcase something, at least, throw one song in there. But when I saw the length of the set, I said, “You know what? Right now, the best thing I could do to establish what I want to do with this whole thing in America? Come out and just slam them over the head with TNT classics the whole way through. And then walk off.”
I’ll be releasing enough stuff here and there and have already. So I’ll just keep doing that. And then start working that into headline shows. I’ll do more of that.
Tony Mills recently, passed away. What are your memories of Tony Mills? And what do you think of the albums that he did with TNT?
So first of all, it was a really strange thing, because we knew he was getting pretty bad but Rockheim, actually, went down to where he lives and presented him with his award for the induction and so forth.
So Rockheim decided to induct him with the rest of us which was great. I’m glad they did that. Then we did the show. Because of the timing of everything – that the award ceremony was on the 16th of September and because it was not in Oslo, there would have been no way for me to fly home on the 17th which meant my original way normal time I would have gone back was the 18th which was my birthday. And I didn’t want to fly home and spend the whole entire day flying on my birthday. So I planned ahead and I have a lot of friends in Oslo. So I stayed. I planned to stay there ahead of time.
So I was in my room in Oslo waiting to be picked up by some friends to go hang out and have a small birthday party. And all of a sudden, I was kind of just resting before I was going to get picked up. And while I was in bed or on the bed, this overwhelming feeling came over me as, “Man, you got to reach out to Tony.” ‘Cause I was so busy the whole time. And I was kind of keeping up with how he was and stuff. But I was like just all of a sudden, I’m like, “Just get up and reach out.” And I sat up. I grabbed my phone. And the first thing I saw was that he passed away. This was on my birthday. So I don’t know if you knew that. But he died on my birthday.
So it was kind of like– when we got to the party, we sort of all toasted him. And the TNT’s drummer’s daughter, who have known since she was born, she happened to be down there. So she came to the party, too, and we were all toasting him. But it was just a strange thing. It was just kind of like, “Wow, this is just so crazy.” He’s the same age as me. His name is Tony. Replaced me in my band. And he dies on my birthday. And it’s just weird. It is just a little– it was kinda just bizarre.
There were even people because it was written up in a lot of music press. And for people that aren’t hardcore fans and just sort of looked in passing, they saw Tony and they saw TNT. So I go a few texts, “Are you alive?” After my plane landed, I had a few, actually, and a few messages as well. So I was wondering if that would happen and it did.
But anyway, Tony was a really talented guy. I left the band in 2006. I actually gave them a list of singers that I thought would be great for the gig. And he was on that list. They went through to see the other people on the list, and they settled with him. Not settled. They chose him. And it was a great choice.
And, honestly, I never really listened to any of those albums. What I used to tell people was– and I feel bad saying this now that he’s not with us anymore. But what I used to tell people is it’s okay. It’s kind of like you split up with your wife. And it’s okay that she is sleeping with somebody else. I just don’t want to walk in on it. That was kind of my analogy of not listening to those albums. But I have heard some, obviously, a couple when we played this show together in 2012 at the anniversary of the band with a symphony orchestra. I did hear some of it live. And there is some good songs. In fact, at the ceremony, a very popular band in Norway called Stage Dolls, they actually, performed one of the songs from his era. And it was fantastic. So there are some great songs. And he was a really talented singer and a really cool guy. We spoke several times off and on through the years. And he was always gracious and very respectful for the legacy of the band and for what his role was. It’s a real team to see so many people in my age-range succumbing to things especially cancer and heart disease.
What do you think of the TNT album XIII and their current singer?
That’s a tough question. Well, I would say that I, honestly, have not listened to the whole album, because that particular departure from TNT was really tough. I’ve been so renowned for well over a year and a half. And that was sort of at the peak of my alcohol addiction issues. And I’m not the only person in the band with those issues. But I’m the only one that stopped.
What I’ll say is that I wrote some of the material. And one of the best songs, I think, Ronnie and I had written in years is on that record, and I’ve never listened to it. Because I don’t want to hear someone else’s interpretation of a song that was so personal to me. So in terms of the lyrics and the whole thing. It was that really personal song. So I’ll eventually, possibly, re-record that the way I want to.
But yes. Honestly, I’ve heard a few things in passing. But I really, honestly, haven’t listened to it. So I can’t say. And I think the kid’s probably, fine. I haven’t really, again, analyzed it. And I’m not going to take the positive or the negative. And I’ve heard a lot of negative about him from people. But they are my fans. And that happens with every band. So I can’t really take that seriously.
The Frontiers released Encore – Live in Milano earlier this year. Looking back on that, what do you think of that particular show and it being released by Frontiers?
I thought it was weird. I thought it was really bizarre for both the band and for them and for me. And that was really awkward and kind of inappropriate. But I understand from a business standpoint that there was already a contract signed for it. So I think there might have been a more creative way to get around releasing it. Maybe, figure some alternative out.
But I don’t think it was our best show, by far, especially of that particular year or ever. We have better, better shows out there I think. I mean I’m just being honest. And it’s okay. It’s okay. I mean, to me, when I watched it, I see a band in decline. But that’s just the way I was feeling at that time. So I don’t know. People really liked it. It got pretty good reviews.
I actually, found a copy of Transistor and kind of like that. What do you think of that, particular, album in retrospect? And then what do you think is the most underrated TNT album?
Probably, that one or the one that came right before it, Firefly. We took a break for about four years between ’92 and ’96. And during that time, Ronnie had another band he was working with and released a few albums with called Vagabond. And I did other things that were completely different from TNT. And so when we got back together, we brought a lot of new influences into our writing. And we always had a good writing rapport. I just did a really awesome– the tour that I just did in Europe, it was a, basically, a storyteller’s kind of thing. And at one of the points during the show, I talked about this very thing of when we reconnected and started writing in ’96, there was a whole new energy in the writing that we both brought into it. We were writing exactly what we wanted to write
Ultimately, when we handed it in, the label, certainly, didn’t expect a music like that. But we didn’t care. We probably, maybe, we should have a little more, and we should have tried to do something that was a little bit more of a combination of old school. We were just so into what we were doing. We just ran with it. And it was great. In retrospect, we probably should have just called it something else other than TNT like Harnell-Tekrø or something. And that’s something that we’ve always wanted to do and may still do someday, something outside of the confines of TNT.
I think it was he and I just kind of enjoying being creative without being in a cage of what people thought TNT should sound like. And I think what a shame that with the backlash of those two albums, we sort of retreated. We did make, possibly, the best TNT album of our lives after that when we did My Religion. So in a way, as much as people criticized those two albums in the late 90’s TNT era, I think going that far away from our core sound is what made My Religion so special. Because then we reeled it back in. But we were reeling it in from a place we were now more comfortable in which was not the classic TNT sound. So when we kind of try to purposely go back to it, we brought a lot of some freshness, I would say, to that. But that was a healthy thing.
I confess I loved Transistor. So anyway [laughter]–
Yes. I did, too. And I think it’s a really underrated and under listened to, unappreciated TNT record. So yeah.
I have a Starbreaker question. Is there any overall story or concept behind the album titled Dysphoria?
Yeah. And I did quite a lot of interviews after that record came out in January. That album is all wrapped up in the sort of concept, I guess, which I didn’t set out to make it that. It just ended up with a kind of feeling like that.
I was in early recovery with having broken up with my girlfriend of five and a half years. And it was just kind of in a really dark place. But that’s where you’re at, and I was lucky that I had the record to work on. So I just poured every emotion into that album. I had my home studio set up. I was working long distance with Magnus (Karlsson), and he gave me some beautiful music to work with. So I was just kind of enjoying the day-by-day. I was just kind of digging in and writing all the emotions poured out into words and the melodies. So it was a really cathartic, therapeutic thing project to do.
If I were to summarize the meaning of the record, it’s kind of about lost love, addiction, passion. It’s just kind of the extremes of life, of the emotional side of life. It’s dark at times. But I think it’s always hopeful. Because again, I was kind of trying to dig out. And there’s a lot of that feeling in the record of, Yes, it can be shitty. It was shitty. But we’re going somewhere here. We’re coming out of it. We’re trying to come out of it. So and I just thought the title just sort of came along and it’s the words with one of the songs. And I thought it was kind of cool. So went with it.
Do you have any messages for your fans who’ve been following your career all this time?
Just a huge thank you for the loyalty, for the patience at times where maybe there wasn’t a lot of music being released, although I feel like I’ve been a pretty prolific artist in terms of releasing music. For example, I didn’t release anything new for about, maybe, four years. And this year, there are two new records. So I try and make up for it when I can. But I do appreciate the fans for their loyalty. And they just never give up on me. And that helps keep me in the game.
(Interview by Ken Morton – Live Photos by Joe Schaeffer – Studio Photo by Bart Stadnicki )
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