Hirsh Gardner: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Hirsh Gardner Interview

Feature Photo: Courtesy of Ken Higgins

In the wake of KISS’s world-beating success, their manager, Bill Aucoin, moved to extend his range and ended up working with bands like Starz and New England.

Initially, the success of these bands, through their association with KISS, and monster music, saw early returns. But as Aucoin’s demons caught up with him, and KISS’s needs furthered as their commercial fortunes dwindled, the walls began to close in for New England. Further complicating matters, New England’s label, Elektra Records, dropped the ball, choosing to release opus-length cuts instead of other more accessible tracks lying in wait.

For New England’s drummer, Hirsh Gardner, a jazz-head, who managed to parlay his skin-thrashing ways into rock success, the failures of Bill Aucoin and Elektra Records to catapult New England to the heights they rightfully deserved was a bitter pill. But he and his cohorts, bassist Gary Shea and keyboardist Jimmy Waldo, weren’t done.

On a recommendation from KISS’s Gene Simmons, Gardner and company hooked up with Jackson V-wielding shredder Vinnie Vincent, forming Warrior. Early on, Warrior seemed primed for hair metal success, and with record companies sniffing around the group, it seemed only a matter of time before the group invaded the rock charts.

Alas, once again, it was not to be, as KISS came calling for Vincent’s services after Ace Frehley’s departure. With dollar signs in his eyes, the enigmatic six-stringer packed up his axe and took his songs with him en route to a tumultuous tenure with KISS and, later, the Vinnie Vincent Invasion.

Tired of the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, Garnder went home to Massachusetts while Shea and Waldo contained on, forming Alcatrazz to varying levels of success. Garnder has no regrets, though, as he went on to have a fruitful and highly fulfilling session, production, and solo career, which carries on to this day.

Ever busy doing what he loves, Hirsh Gardner dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to recount his origins on the drums, the formation of New England, touring with KISS, working with Vinnie Vincent, and what’s next for him as he moves forward.

What first inspired you to pick up the drums? Can you remember your first kit?

My first kit was a Ludwig drum set. My sister loaned me $250; with that money, I got a 1964 Ludwig bass drum and snare drum with some beautiful Zildjian high hats and a ride cymbal. Still have the snare drum today. Early on, I was inspired by drummer Gene Krupa. I remember being blown away by the Gene Krupa story starring Sal Minio. Back then, I listened to a lot of swing-era music, the likes of Benny Goodman, Gene, Buddy Rich, and Duke Ellington. Not long after that, like most others at that time, The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were a tremendous inspiration.

Describe your approach to the drums and how it’s changed since your years in New England.

As I said in the first question, I was initially into jazz. I listened to a lot of swing-era music and b-bop and was a total fan of extended drum solos. After a while, I started getting into a lot of blues, and a Toronto band Luke and the Apostles especially influenced me. Yorkville Village in Toronto was a hotbed for music in the late-60s.

Even though I was too young to hang out in clubs, I would still go out to jam sessions and meet many of the legendary Toronto musicians. Joni Mitchell, David Clayton Thomas, Sonnie Terry, and Brownie McGee, even Rick James, a Buffalo native who played in the Myna Byrds, a well-known Toronto band. I then moved to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. At that point in my musical career, I was totally into rock drumming. Folks like Joey Kramer, Carmine Appice, and Bill Bruford. were all very influential on my playing style.

Photo Coutesy of Hirsh Gardner

What did your days as a touring musician in the rock world teach you that you still use as a producer today?

Simplicity! Touring with a band like AC/DC and watching Phil Rudd was an education unto itself. And, of course, touring with Rush and being on the same stage as Neil Peart was as intimidating as fuck, but you would learn something new every time you watched him play. As a producer, I know I’m tough on drummers. I learned from touring with the likes of the two guys mentioned above to keep it simple, keep it musical, and play the song where the melody, lyrics, and song arrangement were the most important.

Is there anything about New England’s records that you’d go back and change since you’ve been on the other side of the glass now?

Well, you will get a chance to hear some of those ideas on my upcoming solo album, where I have actually covered about six New England songs and recorded them with all the modern techniques that we currently use. I’ve got my New England guys John Fannon, Jimmy Waldo, and Gary Shea on a bunch of the songs, as well as Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on Nothing To Fear and Chris Laney of Pretty Maids, who, by the way, is mixing the album for me.

My approach now is much heavier than the original recordings, with a lot more vocals and guitars. Listening to the New England albums now that we produced back in the ’80s, I don’t think I would have changed a thing back then. We were right next to Journey’s studio room when we were recording our first album in L.A. with Mike Stone (Queen, Asia, Journey, KISS) and Paul Stanley producing. We became pretty friendly with the guys, and they would come into our studio to listen to our tracks. They were so blown away by the sound of our record that they hired Mike Stone to produce their next recording. That says a lot about the quality of sound we achieved back then.

Going back to your days in New England, Bill Aucoin was your manager. Did Bill give bands like New England and Starz the same level of attention and care as KISS?

I think Bill tried extremely hard to make New England happen on the first album. He did everything he could that he had at his disposal, which was pretty much everything, given his stature in the industry. Let’s not forget that that was the period of time when KISS needed Bill’s attention more than ever. Even though the KISS album Music from ‘The Elder’ was quite innovative at the time, it was not a commercially successful album. I believe Bill was under a lot of pressure to give most of his time to KISS. Rick Aliberti, Bill’s second in command, gave us as much attention as he could at the time. Rick did a great job, but many other factors entered into play that eventually led to the band’s demise.

What was the reason for New England not signing with Casablanca?

We had auditioned for Clive Davis at Arista, Chris Wright of Chrysalis, and Ron Alexenberg of the new Infinity label. We never auditioned for Casablanca.

Can you recount working with Paul Stanley? How did he most influence the record, and why wasn’t Paul credited for his backing vocals?

It was an incredibly cool experience working with Paul Stanley. I mean, the guy was and is one of the greatest fucking rock stars on the planet. Most of the songs on our first album were all arranged by the band in the previous year or two. So Paul didn’t have much production arranging to do when he came to our rehearsal studio in Braintree, Massachusetts, for preproduction.

I do recall one story where he insisted that there be a guitar solo in “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya,” which certainly made a big difference in the success of that song. I gotta tell you that it was pretty cool with Paul on the other side of the glass letting you know how your vocal performance was coming along. As far as his background vocal on “Lose Ya,” it was a pretty quick add-on in the studio, and I think everyone just forgot about it until later when we were talking about it in interviews.

What are your most memorable moments opening for KISS on the Dynasty Tour

There were so many great moments on that tour, playing for 80,000 people at Pontiac Stadium with Cheap Trick and KISS. Opening for KISS at Madison Square Garden for two nights in a row, where I believe it was said that we were one of the only bands to tour with KISS that received encores.

And then there was that one show where I was standing off to the side of the stage watching KISS perform, and there was this gorgeous young lady with long black hair standing right beside me. So, I leaned over and said, “Hi, how are you enjoying the show?” To my surprise, it was Cher. She turned around, looked at me, didn’t say a word, and went back to watching her boyfriend, Gene Simmons, perform. Man… did I feel like a dork! [Laughs].

Was Elektra the right label for New England? Why didn’t New England’s two follow-up records hit like the first?

Elektra blew it for us, especially their A&R team. We presented them with an album that had three to five top-40 hit singles. Since they had such success with Queen’s 8-minute-long “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they thought that history would repeat itself by releasing our song “Explorer Suite,” which was also an opus of about 7 to 8 minutes. Unfortunately, that ill-conceived plan hatched by the head of A&R failed miserably.

We lost all the momentum from our first album and, quite frankly, never recovered from a commercial standpoint. Artistically the band was at its prime. Our live performances were spot on. Each of us had matured musically, and I believe we could compete with the best of them on the road. Our next album, produced by Todd Rundgren, was again released on Elektra. haha, Todd said to us at the time, “Don’t let the label screw this up!” Well… they did. They released “Be My Dirty Dream Tonite” as the first single. Radio wouldn’t touch it.

After the end of New England, how did Warrior come to be? Had Vinnie Vincent begun working with KISS yet?

Jimmy [Waldo], Gary [Shea], and I continued to work together, and we’re trying to find a replacement for John [Fannon] when he left the band. We had heard from a couple of our friends in the industry, Lenny Petze of Epic Records and Gene Simmons, that there was this kid named Vinnie Cusano, a songwriter/guitar player looking for a band. We auditioned Vinnie and felt it was a good fit, so we moved to L.A. to put Warrior together. At the same time, Vinnie was writing with Paul and Gene. We did several demos in L.A. and were about to get signed to Columbia when Vinny got the offer to join KISS.

Are the rumors of Vinnie’s songwriting and guitar chops around this time true? What were your impressions of Vinnie musically?

The rumors are true. Vinnie’s playing at that time and his songwriting were excellent. Some of the best lyrics I’ve ever heard. And at this point, his guitar playing was melodic and made total sense for the song.

Of course, Vinnie had his issues with Gene and Paul. How was it working with him on a personal level?

When we worked on the Warrior project, Vinnie was fine. Just another one of the boys in the band. After he was with KISS for a while, I met him at the Worcester Centrum in Massachusetts, where KISS was playing. We hung out that night, had a great time, and decided that after the KISS tour was over, we would get together at my home studio near Boston and record some songs. He came to Boston, and we recorded several songs, which eventually were part of his Invasion project.

Much of the time he spent on the phone with I’m assuming Gene arguing about his contract with them. I’m not gonna go into too many details, but Vinnie had drastically changed. After spending several months working with him in my studio as a coproducer, engineer, drummer, and vocalist, he decided to leave Boston for L.A., and that’s the last I heard from him… except for the lawsuit.

How close was Warrior to signing a deal? If Vinnie doesn’t leave, does Warrior take off?

I believe that Warrior would have been signed and would have been huge. Let’s put this in a timeline: this was right before Ratt, Poison, Mötley Crüe, and all these L.A. metal bands hit it big. Warrior coulda, shoulda, woulda done just fine in that group of bands in the mid-80s. I think Vinnie made the only choice he could have at the time but honestly, he would have been much more successful if he had hung out with Jimmy, Gary, and me. [Laughs].

Was there talk of you joining Alcatrazz?

No, that never happened. I was firmly entrenched in Boston at that point, making a good living with my studio work.

What has your solo work allowed you to do that your previous work hasn’t?

For years after New England, I produced bands and maybe a little playing here and in the New England area. I had started a label with my best friend and business partner, Gary Borress, and we had established a lot of contacts around the world with different labels. Unbeknownst to me, Gary had sent out a couple of my demos to Marquis Avalon, a label in Japan, and they immediately offered me a record deal. Over the years, including my time with New England, I wrote many songs.

So now, having this record deal, I was forced into a situation where I had to complete ten or eleven songs for the album. It was truly a labor of love which eventually became Wasteland For Broken Hearts. It was released internationally in Japan and Europe (MTM Records) and on our own label in the USA, GB Music. I was very proud of that achievement and then recorded my second solo album, My Brain Needs A Holiday. Shameless plug here; they are still available on my website!

When you’re recording a solo album, you really don’t have as many filters for your songs as you do when you’re working with others. So, this freedom allowed me to continue to write songs, record songs, and get them on an album and out into the public. I still believe to this day that many of those songs could have been recorded by New England and could have helped with the success of the band.

What are your thoughts on the revival of hair metal and AOR music?

I absolutely love it, especially the bands coming out of Europe and some of the more progressive bands like Pretty Maids, W.E.T., Bumblefoot, Sons Of Apollo, Alcatrazz, etc. These guys are tearing it up and bringing back extremely high-quality rock music. The level of playing is off the charts. Vocalists like Jeff Scott Soto and Ronnie Atkins, guitar slingers like Joe Stump and Bumblefoot, drummers like Alan Sorenson and Mike Mangini… man, these guys are amazing.

Does New England have any plans to record or tour in the future?

Right now, I would have to say no. Gary and Jimmy are deeply involved in their band Alcatrazz, I’m currently recording my third solo album and involved in other projects, and John is pretty much retired and has moved out of the area.

What’s next for you in all lanes? 

I’m just gonna continue writing and recording music. I love collaborating with others and have written several songs recently with other artists that may appear on future albums or even some on my current album. I love performing live and always have, so that could be a possibility in the future as well. Music, Music, Music… it’s what I do and who I am; if I continue breathing, I’ll continue to make music.

Feature Photo: Photograph by Michael Hill shot in 1982 – Courtesy of Ken Higgins

Hirsh Gardner: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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