An Interview With Ray West & Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle

An Interview With Ray West & Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle

Feature Photo: Aleksandar Kamasi / Shutterstock.com

Ray West & Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle

Interview by Andrew Daly

Rising from the ashes of Boston band Bang, Spread Eagle was initially comprised of a lineup featuring Ray West (vocals), Tommi Gallo (drums), Rob De Luca (bass), and DiBartolo (guitar). As many around the NYC area will remember, the mighty Spread Eagle looked to be on track for mega stardom before a series of unfortunate events derailed the once-promising band.

Some assume that Spread Eagle was nothing more than the epitome of ’80s rock. But retrospection tells a different story. Spread Eagle’s ballsy sound was as gritty as it was emotive. And with West out front and De Luca’s bass pounding stateside, a now reformed Spread Eagle is flying higher than ever.

To West’s credit, he is a singer of true grit, integrity, and determination. His story of survival is a harrowing example of the rigors that the music business can thrust upon a young musician. And while his early years were marred by disillusionment bred through mishandling, drug use, and wayward wandering, these days, West is stronger than ever after finding a latter-career form that shows him to be one of the best vocalists on the scene today.

As for DeLuca, he still holds down bass duties and is a linchpin of Spread Eagle’s resurgence. Songwriting and business aside, one thing is clear, Spread Eagle will always be De Luca’s baby, meaning—he takes it as seriously now as he did back in 1990 when Spread Eagle dropped its seething debut.

To West and De Luca, Spread Eagle is about family, friendship, and a shared mindset of bringing “NYC Street Metal” to the masses. To that end, West and De Luca dialed in with Classic Rock History to dig into Spread Eagle’s earliest hours, their recollections of recording their debut, and the vents that shaped the band thereafter and beyond.

An Interview With Ray West & Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle

How did Spread Eagle form?

Rob De Luca: Paul [DiBartolo] and I moved up to Boston from our mid-East Coast cities and eventually met Tommi [Gallo] there. We played together for a few years but couldn’t get that elusive major-label record deal. Just as our band broke up, Paul’s girlfriend (and future wife) moved from Boston to NYC. Paul decided to follow her. Paul then met Ray and joined a band he was in as a second guitarist. Paul was “too good” to be in a two-guitar band, so he called Tommi and me to continue what we’d started. Paul and I began writing via mailing cassette tapes, then Tommi and I moved down to NYC.

Ray West: I sang for a band called Fox Hunt in New York City; Charlie Gambetta managed that project. The guitar player in that band happened to be a stone-cold junkie, and one day he decided to steal gear that belonged to the manager, sell it, and move out to California. Then my manager, Charlie, was introduced to Paul’s manager, Scott Calvert.

So, I was introduced to Paul at LoHo sound studios on the edge of Chinatown. I thought Paul looked great, talked the talk, walked the walk, and we seemed to be on the same frequency. Later, when he jammed with us, I fell in love with his playing and sound at first listen. And he came with the added bonus of a manager with MTV connections.

But Spread Eagle wasn’t formed yet, right?

West: Nah. So, here’s the rub—things are going great, we have a great new guitar player in Paul, and I’m giddy with possibilities, and then for some reason crazy reason, my manager says the guitar player, who left for California, wants to come back and, be in the band again. I was like, “What the fu*k?” See, our management felt he was a kind of Keith Richards prototype, with a heavy street vibe and a suicidal drug habit. So, out of desperation, we all say, “Ok, let’s give it a shot.” Huge mistake.

So, at the second rehearsal, Paul is trying his best to put his best foot forward, and it’s just not meshing. The chemistry with the other guitar player sucked, and Paul became very frustrated. He didn’t dig the whole two-guitar player concept because Paul was like having two guitar players in one, maybe even three. He was that talented.

Paul bailed, then?

West: Yeah. So, Paul tells me, “I can’t play with this clown; I’m outta here. “And I said, “I totally get it.” So next, he and his manager asked Tommi and Rob to get their asses to NYC from Boston, where they had all been in a band called Bang together. Then a couple of days later, Tommi and Rob come through the studio door, introductions are made, then my manager tells me he will be helping them put their demo together. The only thing is they didn’t have a singer, so I was asked to go over and help put some vocals down for them to use on the demo to find someone to front their band.

The chemistry must have been palatable because you never left…

West: When I went to the studio, I didn’t think I’d be doing any writing, but that turned out to be wrong. I thought I’d just be singing whatever was written, but the guys gave me the freedom to adjust and change lyrics to fit my vernacular. So, I did my best to put my signature on a couple of tunes, and everyone who listened said, “This sounds like one helluva a fu*kin’ band!” And that was it; Spread Eagle was born. The guitar player from the other band happened to be walking by and heard the mix as well. He said, “I guess that’s what you’re doing now.” And I was like, “Yup.” I left the other band and did spread full-time.

What were your first impressions of each other?

De Luca: Ray was very street-smart and in tune with downtown NYC. Everybody we met loved him. His knowledge of the confusing subway system immediately blew me away. Cocky at times, but we needed that.

West: Honestly, my first impression of Rob was, “This dude has awesome rock star hair and abs.” Seriously though, Rob struck me as a good dude. He was a very intense and serious musician with great lyrical chops and a great ear for melody. We were two very young, headstrong guys, which means, in the beginning, Rob and I butted heads quite a bit. But we both had the good sense that we were working towards something very cool and needed each other. That made us very close in a short amount of time. I’m proud to call Rob my brother.

How did the deal with MCA Records go down?

De Luca: Tommi and I moved down on Feb 1, 1989. So you might say we formed then, or a couple of months later, when Ray left his band and officially joined. We got signed almost immediately because we had already put in four years of intense work. We just needed the missing piece, which was Ray. And MCA saw us play the four or five new songs we had written in a 12’x12′ basement rehearsal space called LoHo Studios on lower Lafayette St. They offered to sign us on the spot.

West: Through connections in the business, people heard our demo and started coming to our rehearsal room. We didn’t do any private showcasing or any showcasing in the clubs; these show biz motherfu*kers actually came to see us in our sweaty smelly rehearsal room. And one afternoon, Bruce Dickenson from MCA came down to see us rehearse, and after we played him about four songs, he asked to sign us, and we said, “Yes.” That’s when we first had to start dealing with the leeches of the business: the lawyers. Little did we know that MCA should have stood for “Music Cemetery of America.” We signed a contract that was thicker than a stack of Bibles, and the vibe was dark as fu*k. We knew the deal would involve a lot of blood. We were right.

Can you remember Spread Eagle’s first gig?

De Luca: I don’t remember it. My only memories are via live pictures by Brian Rademacher at RockEyez. But I’ve literally met thousands of bands in my life; we were the hungriest I’ve ever seen. It was our full-time job. We rehearsed six times a week for many years before we were signed. Some days we did double rehearsals, then went out to the clubs every night to promote our next show.

West: The best way to put it is we were like caged monkeys at feeding time. That’s how crazy our live energy was. I remember the first gig at a place called Sanctuary, on W 8th St. It was an underground club, and it was packed. One of the coolest things about this band’s beginning days was how NYC supported us. We were so proud of our NYC identity and still are. I almost felt sorry for whatever band had to go on after us. But then I got to know them and stopped feeling sorry. Game on.

Do you remember writing the self-titled debut?

De Luca: Most of the time, Paul would write the guitar music first, then me or Ray would write lyrics and melodies. We did demos at LoHo on the first batch of songs. After that batch, we already made the album, so no more demos. Recording took place at The Record Plant on 44th St in Manhattan. We wanted to record where Aerosmith did Rocks. We were the last band to record there; then they demolished it for office space.

West: As I mentioned before, we only had about five demoed songs when we got signed, so we had to enjoy the privilege of writing in a pressure cooker, aka The Record Plant. At that same time, we moved some of our rehearsals to the music building on 38th St. and 8th Avenue. Some days, we’d hang out, get a buzz and write. I remember Paul coming up with the riff to “Broken City” at rehearsal, then we took it over to the studio and started to chip away. But that’s how it worked; Paul came up with riffs, and Rob and I chimed in with lyric and melody ideas. We didn’t have the luxury of egos, so we had to work together and get shit done.

Any memories that stand out most while at the Record Plant?

West: For me, the Record Plant was both amazing and scary. It was such a famous studio with a rich history. I was like, “Holy shit, we’re really here.” On the first day, I walked into Adrian Belew from King Crimson in the lobby; that blew my mind. And I remember getting to sing in the vocal booth that had huge floor to ceiling size windows. So I could look outside and see all of the Midtown city lights. It always set a helluva mood. If I could be corny here, it was my little window to the world.

The Record Plant helped us channel the city’s energy onto the tracks. But most of the memories I recall involve tearing the headphones off my head and throwing them at whoever was on the other side of the glass when I was drunk and frustrated. I was totally not into the technical aspect of recording at that time [laughs].

How did “Switchblade Serenade” come together?

De Luca: Paul had most of the guitar music for a year or so since Boston. I came up with the chorus in our shared band apartment on E 9th St in Manhattan, which evolved from there.

West: When I first heard the chords to the chorus, I said to myself, “This is cool, and the groove is sick.” And I remember Rob and Paul had been humming the chorus melody, and I said, “That’s fu*king good; let me jump on that.” Then we started sketching out the verses, and the rest fell into place. But when the guys put together the bridge and solo section, my body got twitchy because I felt this was a great piece of music. I also remember the producer/engineer, Kirk Yano, picking a huge fight over how I pronounced the word “switch” [laughs]. It went on for hours, and I wanted to kill him. But I got through it, and Kirk and I are still good friends.

Why did the music video for “Switchblade Serenade” features what appears to be a different version of the song?

De Luca: The label wanted an extra chorus. We stood behind the song 100% “as is” but felt re-arranging the sections’ order wouldn’t hurt our artistic vision. Knowing all the guys, we probably tried to edit the tape first, and it most likely didn’t sound right. So we recorded another version with the added first chorus. I believe we also changed the tempo slightly.

West: It was one of those ridiculous management/label decisions. They were so darn scared of not doing the right thing. The other version is what we call the “MTV video version.” The way it was on the album was how the artist heard it. But then the outliers came in and said, “We have to make sure this gets on MTV, we have to make sure the chorus hits early, we have to stay safe.” Every time an artist makes a good decision, there’s always some executive or manager who thinks they know the better decision.

As the “Ultimate NYC Street Metal Band,” “Broken City” seems like Spread Eagle’s anthem…

De Luca: I agree. We were signed and had a budget for a real rehearsal space in the Music Building on 38th and 8th in Manhattan. We were doing writing/rehearsing/pre-production sessions every day there. Paul had been there riffing and tweaking his amps all day, as he did many days. Tommi and I were coming in for an evening rehearsal. Paul played it for us live, and it was a bit hard to understand at first, but undeniably unique and great. We spent that night and the next few days arranging and jamming it out.

West: That song is autobiographical. It’s simply a snapshot of our lives at that time. It’s inside looking out. Part of verse one: “I got rats in the kitchen, ripping up the trash, called wind, blowing down my back straight through shattered glass,” that’s how we lived, man. But “Broken City” was another song we finished writing in the studio. There is a musical opus of a guitar solo, and I remember how hard Paul worked to piece all that together. When I heard it, I thought, “What the fu*k, man, this is epic.” Paul was so fu*king gifted at producing his parts.

How about the vocals?

West: I remember how easy the verses were to sing, but I struggled with the chorus melody. Then Rob, on the spot, came up with a very cool lyric and melody. And when he sang it quietly to me, he sang it in a kinda lite falsetto, so I’m at the top of my register in that song. I said, “Hmmmm, I can Do it in that register.” It sounds like I have my balls in a fu*king vice, or there’s a fishing line tied to my balls, and I’m pulling as hard as I can [laughs].

Inside story: our producer/manager brought in a session singer to do a “ghost vocal.” He honestly felt I wasn’t doing it aggressively enough. So, this poor guy goes into the studio, does a session for hours and hours on the chorus, and he comes out and says, “I can’t do this; Ray already did this. Why am I even here?”

How about the mixing side of things?

De Luca: Charlie Gambetta, Paul DiBartolo, and Kirk Yano worked hard on the sound. I have to give them a lot of props. Charlie was pushing Ray to scream as much as possible. Paul was making the guitars as heavy as possible. Kirk often gave arrangement suggestions. We were trying different amps/pickups and configurations. Rod Hui mixed it, and Howie Weinberg mastered it.

West: I gave my input when asked for; I put my hand on the fader to mark where I’d like an echo, maybe some more reverb. But I had zero patience for comping or editing vocals. Nowadays, I am very much about input, and I love the studio, but during that first album, no fu*king way. I’ll be straight with you; at the beginning of my career, I was not a happy studio guy; that was Paul’s thing.

The studio was not my natural environment; my thing was live performance, get on stage, set it, and forget it. The studio was Paul’s domain. He was always next to the mixing board with the producer/engineer. He had a higher music I.Q. than I did. My favorite thing about mixing and production was hearing the playback as loud as possible in the loudest speakers in the house [laughs].

Which song means the most to you?

West: I worked hard on all those songs, so it’s like asking me who my favorite kid is. Each song on that album helped me develop my style. Because somewhere in the recording process, I became more aggressive with my chops. But my favorite is “Shotgun Kiss” because, even though I was born in Brooklyn, I was also raised down south in Florida, and that song sort of bonds the two together. It reminds me of smoking weed and drinking Jack Daniels outside a club called the Button South in Florida.

How was Spread Eagle received upon its release?

De Luca: We got a fantastic response at college and metal radio and on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. On big radio, we did well on 98 Rock Tampa and a few other stations.

West: The people that supported our album after listening, I feel, all had a great taste [laughs]. I think the album was well-received by the industry and the fans we played for. And it got lots of good press. But we did a lot of radio promotion, and I remember the program director out in L.A. for KNAC radio was not a fan of our single “Back on the Bitch.”

I’ve heard this story before—she felt it was sexist, right?

West: Yup. I was told she thought it was sexist and would not play us. No one told her it was about alcohol addiction. But then, by some miracle, we were given a chance to meet with her, and once she met us, she saw that we were just a group of good guys who were not sexist. So, she wound up playing “Back on the Bitch” after all. That was a big win for us back then.

Was the support from MCA up to snuff?

De Luca: No, the press was good. MCA were older guys who were new to the metal game. Sales were their only barometer, and we were trying to do something a bit different than the other bands on the label and scene. There was no artist development, but that’s life.

West: The support from MCA was great initially, but as we got further along, they had no idea what to do with us. So, to put It mildly, the support from MCA was shit. We did do an awful lot of press. We even had a couple of those days when we would sit at MCA headquarters in L.A. Then, there’d be a parade of journalists coming through the door, one by one, and they all seemed to be asking the same questions. Those were a grind. But I stayed pretty lit up most of the time, so I guess I enjoyed the ups, and even the downs, as long as I was somewhat wasted.

What are your memories of hitting the road in support of Spread Eagle?

De Luca: The camaraderie between us was great. Livestock Festival and 98 Rock in Zephyr Hills, FL, found us on our first-ever tour bus. And we did NYC shows at Limelight, L’Amour, and the Cat Club. I remember hanging out with Alice In Chains when they came to shows and then staying in L.A. for a couple of months gigging. It was a great time.

West: Come on, dude, this question is so unfair [laughs]. After all the drugs and alcohol, things are a little blurry and foggy, but I will do my best to recollect. We played our best gigs on that first tour in New York City, L.A., Boston, Texas, Vegas, and even Florida. When you’re on tour, any audience singing along and happy to see you is a great gig.

In Florida, we had great support at 98 Rock in Tampa because DJ Austin Keys always played us. But one of my best memories is playing an outdoor fest called Livestock in Tampa, FL. That was the gig where I met one of my childhood heroes Ricky Medlock from Blackfoot. And I remember that after every show, the front cabin of our bus would turn into a disco. We’d play whatever was grooving, and you’d be surprised by the number of people you could jam into a tour bus and have one hell of a party.

Is there one show that you think best defined that early era?

West: The parties were big, crazy, and we’d rise and repeat. And I remember the last gig well because the last gig of a tour is usually a homecoming gig. And we played one the Limelight, which was one of the best shows we did. The band was so tight from playing so many shows that we brought the house down. I remember the after party was, well, I don’t remember it, that’s how good it was [laughs]. We did so many shows, and there were so many times we should’ve been in jail. Luckily, I only went to jail once.

And what about the aftermath?

De Luca: The press was great, but the label wasn’t happy when they didn’t see big dollar signs. That’s when the whispering in ears and second-guessing started. When the future is murky, you start to hear it.

West: With the album, we had to fight hard for everything. So, when the label was doing its job, we felt great. But when they weren’t doing right by us, things got tight. The people making decisions around us always tested our patience and intestinal fortitude. The budget was always tight; corners always had to be cut, and we had to do our best to make the most of what we had.

How did that affect you as artists?

West: As artists, we were, and still are, very emotionally high-strung people. And back then, there was usually a lot of anger, maybe some off-color comments, and a lot of bitching about bad decisions. The music business back then wasn’t for the faint-hearted or the weak. If you didn’t know how to swim, you were dead in the water. And nowadays, it’s a billion little fishes swimming in a tiny pond because anyone with a laptop, software, and a condenser microphone, is a “recording artist.”

What does Spread Eagle’s debut mean to you?

De Luca: It means everything to me. Here we are still talking about it 33 years later. I think we achieved what we set out to do. We heard what was coming out of L.A. and didn’t feel it represented us, NYC, or the East Coast. We decided to be heavier, grittier, and meaner than those bands.

West: I still can’t believe it. I think it’s because maybe I’m too close to it. The process had a lot of growing pains for me. I sat and listened to the whole thing through a couple of days ago, and I had the most shit-eating grin on my face. I was like, “We did that, and it’s fu*king great.” That’s all it has ever mattered to me, that we created something people connected to.

So, I am very proud indeed. And lately, I’ve met many great people who tell me they grew up on that album. They tell me it was part of their high school experience or got them through a hard time. And man, that blows my mind to think we were someone’s band, and they took ownership of the songs as much as we did.

Any regrets or anything you’d change?

De Luca: No, not on the debut. I love what we did. I wouldn’t change a single thing. I wish we got more support. But we did what we needed to. The album has stood the test of time.

West: Because life is too short, and I’ve been allowed to live this long, I can’t do regrets. I’m just happy to be alive to talk about my experience. But, and it’s a really big butnever sign anything unless you understand what you’re signing. It’s called the music business for a reason.

An Interview With Ray West & Rob De Luca of Spread Eagle article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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