Heart Interview

Fronted by the Wilson Sisters (Ann and Nancy), Heart has been a mainstay on the music scene, since the mid 70's. They've toured the world, graced the covers of all the leading music magazines, and sold millions of records.

While the Wilson Sisters always get the most attention, just as important to the group, is the musicians behind them. Howard Leese is one such musician. He plays lead guitar for "Heart." Howard has been with the group from the very earliest of days.

We spoke to Howard Leese about "Heart."

Q. Howard, you're a very important player in Heart's success story. But, just how much freedom are you allowed in the group?
A. Well, everyone has complete artistic freedom within the framework of the group. Each person is the final arbiter about their own part. I never told the drummer what to play. No one tells me what to play. We like to get everyone's opinion, but basically each person controls their own performance. As far as that goes, everyone has complete freedom to do what they think is appropriate. Besides that, as far as like picking the songs, it's really very democratic. In fact, when it actually comes down to it, the guys actually do more of the nuts and bolts work as a project than the girls do. Ann's main concern is that she sings great. She likes all the songs, and they're really fussy about the songs. But, when it comes to rehearsing the songs and making the arrangements and demos, the guys actually do a little more of that than the girls do. You would be surprised at how democratic this band really is.

Q. Last year's album "Rock the House Live" was not your first 'live' album was it?
A. We did a Greatest Hits 'Live' two album set in 1980. One record was recorded ‘live’ and the other record was the greatest hits up till then. So, this is actually our second 'live' record.

Q. Why did you wait so long to release another 'live' effort?
A. Ordinarily we don't record 'live' that often. We do our satellite 'live' broadcasts, and do a few shows that way. But generally, we just don't seem to make 'live' records that much anymore. Not that many people do it. But, when we got about half way through this tour last year, everybody was saying how good the show was and how rockin' it was. People could see how tough the show was, musically, compared to how people perceive us from the string of singles on the radio. So, we just started talking about recording it, for its own sake. It sort of grew from there. Once we put it down on tape, we thought we should make an album out of this.

Q. When you were playing the club circuit in Seattle and Vancouver, back in the mid 70's, did you think you'd still be in a band in the 1990's?
A. Probably not. I probably don't expect a band, especially an American band, to last as long as we have. I would probably have been a little over optimistic to expect it to last 16 years at that point. When I joined, I thought it would only be for a year or two.

Q. How successful did you think the band would be?
A. I absolutely thought the band would be successful. The first time they asked me to join, I declined. I didn't want to work in the clubs that much. I already had a good job working in studios, doing sessions, a few days of the month, playing tennis most of the time, and havin' a good time. So, I didn't have to work that hard. I didn't want to join at first, but, then a few months passed, and I saw the band's progress, and how some of the people in the band were really ambitious. So, I threw my lot in. I didn't think it would last this long. I didn't think there was any limit on how successful we could be.

Q. You were born in Los Angeles, the music capital of the world. Yet, you left L.A. for Vancouver. That's the exact opposite of what most musicians would do. Explain.
A. I heard the exact same thing from a friend of mine who was from Canada and had moved to L.A. In L.A. it was actually hard to do sessions because there was such a little clique of guys who did the majority of sessions. To break in down there was pretty difficult. Just getting into a studio in L.A. was like pulling teeth.

Q. It was reported that as far back as 1982, Heart was losing favor with its audiences. What was the problem?
A. What happened was the original band came to an end, with Steve Fossen and Mike Derosier leaving. The last record we made with them was called "Private Audition" and it was a record where Nancy and her friend Sue, kind of pretty much took control and wrote all of the songs. They didn't get much input from the two guys who were getting ready to leave the band. That record turned out to be too personal of a thing to really translate very well to the audience. I don't think people related to it very well. Some of the critics liked it, but in general it didn't do very well.

Q. Do you ever get tired of playing the hit songs of Heart?
A. Yeah. Usually not because we're careful. I always say that when we're in the studio. I go if we're doing a song; do you really want to be playing this for the next ten years? Are you gonna want to play this every night? We're real proud of the body of work we've done. I don't have a problem playing any of the old songs, except we don't play 'Magic Man' anymore just 'cause we're pretty tired of it, and there's not much we can do to change it. We did a reggae version of it once. We always change the arrangements of the songs from year to year. If we get tired of a song, we just stop playing it. We don't play quite a few of our hits, just 'cause we're tired of'em.

Q. What's made Heart such a stand out group is great vocals, and great songs. Am I right?
A. Those are two of the biggest things. I consider Ann the best, female, white rock singer ever. So, that's a big plus. She can just about sing anything. She's amazing, because she always gives a hundred percent, even when we're rehearsing, or when we're running down a song in the studio and she has to sing it twenty times in a row. She doesn't know how to sing any other way. She's all out, all the time. So, that's probably the main thing, our sound, and Ann's voice. You can't compete.

Q. And, I almost forgot the musicianship.
A. My main job is the guitar solos. I take it real seriously. When you think about it the solo is one of the big points in the song. When Ann sings the second chorus, there's usually a scream, and it's like Take it,' and you have to come up to that level of intensity and play for awhile, and then give it back to Ann. So, that's quite a responsibility, especially if you're playing on a song you think is gonna be a number one record. You have to be very careful with the solo and make it something people aren't gonna get sick of after they hear it a million times. What I try to do, is come up with a melody that I think is as good or better than what the writer wrote for the singer.

Q. What's been the biggest change you've seen in the music business since the mid 70's?
A. A lot of it has changed; I think video is probably the biggest, single change. That's put a whole new angle on the deal. There's a lot more emphasis on how it looks, these days, than how it sounds, which is kind of a drag.

© Gary James All Rights Reserved