This is an excerpt from the February 2014 issue of Guitar World. For the rest of this story, plus our "1984 Revisited" cover story with Eddie Van Halen and features on Ozzy Osbourne and Zakk Wylde, Tosin Abasi, Steel Panther, Five Finger Death Punch and John Petrucci's monthly column — check out the February 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.
You Don’t Know Jake: Once dismissed as an Eighties rock relic, Jake E. Lee is back in action with Red Dragon Cartel, a new band that shows off more than just his considerable guitar chops.
“For a while, it was pretty uncool to be me,” Jake E. Lee admits, speaking to Guitar World from a Las Vegas recording studio late one December evening.
It’s something of an unexpected statement, but what is even more surprising is the fact that Lee is saying anything at all. Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, when he was slaying arena stages with Ozzy Osbourne and his own group, Badlands, the San Diego–raised ax man was a bona fide guitar god, with a beautifully liquid and limber playing style that, much like his serpentine stage moves, seemed to flow from him effortlessly.
And yet, save for a few low-key recordings, it’s been more than 20 years since most rock and metal fans have heard anything new from the guitarist.
Until now. Earlier this year, after decades of relative inactivity, the 56-year-old Lee announced the creation of a new band, Red Dragon Cartel. The group, which he formed with friend and Beggars & Thieves bassist Ronnie Mancuso (and which also features singer D.J. Smith and drummer Jonas Fairley), recently released its self-titled debut album. It’s a hard-hitting, 10-song collection that features guest appearances from artists like Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, In This Moment’s Maria Brink and former Iron Maiden vocalist Paul Di’Anno.
It also highlights Lee’s inimitable guitar playing and, perhaps most importantly to him, showcases his talents as a composer. “I was never too comfortable being seen as just a shred guy,” he says. “I was always more interested in the song.”
GUITAR WORLD (EXCERPT): How did Red Dragon Cartel come together?
It was real casual. About two years ago, Ron [Mancuso] just approached me about doing something. I hadn’t done anything in a while, and I can’t say I really had any plans to. But he had been talking with [producer] Kevin Churko [Ozzy Osbourne, Five Finger Death Punch], who has a studio here in Vegas, and they both thought it’d be interesting to see if I was interested in playing. I had ideas that I’d saved up for the last 15 years or so, and Ron and I started to go through them. Since we didn’t have a band, per se, and it was just the two of us writing and recording, we figured we’d just do like a Slash or Santana thing and reach out to different guys to see if they’d want to sing on different songs.
You mentioned that some of the riffs on the new album date back more than a decade. Did you have a lot of material stockpiled?
Oh, yeah. I had hundreds and hundreds of little WAV files in a folder on my computer. Some of them were fully fleshed-out songs, and others were just, like, five-second riffs. The one with Maria [Brink], “Big Mouth,” that was probably one of the first things I ever recorded onto a computer, back in ’96 or ’97. The opening guitar thing you hear on the record, that’s the actual original track I recorded back then. So it’s 16, 17 years old. And the most recent thing I wrote was what became the first song on the album, “Deceived.” That was probably from a few months ago. All the others fell somewhere in between.
So you’ve been recording all these years, but without any explicit intention to release anything to the public. What was the goal?
I was just stockpiling ideas. I still had a desire to make music, but at a certain point, particularly in the mid Nineties, I didn’t see any interest from people. I’d kind of outlived my shelf life, especially since I was a part of—and I hate saying it—the hair-metal thing. So there weren’t a lot of interesting opportunities coming my way. It was always people from that one genre wanting me to make more music like that. Or, because I also had Badlands, it was blues-rock guys that wanted to form blues-rock bands. But I’d already done those two things and I was looking to do something else, something more musically exotic, maybe. But I wasn’t cool anymore, and I was shot down a lot.
Photo: Angela Boatwright
For the rest of this story, plus our "1984 Revisited" cover story with Eddie Van Halen and features on Ozzy Osbourne & Zakk Wylde, the return of Jake E. Lee, Tosin Abasi, Steel Panther, Five Finger Death Punch and John Petrucci's monthly column — check out the February 2014 issue at the Guitar World Online Store.