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Dennis Stratton: “the hook is the chorus”

Dennis Stratton, an individual and musician imbued with many talents, one who has contributed immensely to the genre of Hard Rock and even Heavy Metal. I recently had the honor of conducting this interview where he chatted about Lionheart’s recent album as well as his perspective on harmonies used within music. It was quite the enjoyment to listen to another’s history and recollection on certain topics, so to you the reader I hope the conversation below brings much joy to you as it did to me in preparing and asking these questions!

MD : Hello Mr. Straton and firstly, welcome to Metal Digest, it is my honor in hosting this interview on behalf of the zine, so how have you been during this pandemic?

DS : Thank you… far with no music, no shows or touring it’s been an absolute disaster, thankfully during 2020, we were able to finish our last album ( Lionheart’s last album), ‘The Reality of Miracles’ .

MD : Would you mind walking us through the conception of the album, ‘Reality of Miracles’?

DS: We had the songs written but during 2019, everyone was pretty busy, but it was March 2020 we were actually able to complete it as everyone was stuck at home, so Steve Mann (based in Germany) was isolated in his studio which gave him time to finish the album and send over to us the guitar solo and files which we are able to do at home, so in a way it became finished because of lockdown.

MD: How different was it from recording ‘Second Nature’ versus ‘The Reality of Miracles’, were there any changes in the way recording was handled, especially with Covid?

DS: Basically , when Lee Small came into the band, we did  a couple of shows in the UK, then we went to Sweden Rock and then to Japan, and we were asked by many people in the press and magazines (such as Kerrang) that we should record another album, so myself Steve and Rocky and selected some songs from the ’80s that didn’t make ‘Hot Tonight’ our first album, we re-recorded them and brought them up to a more modern sound, and we also wrote about seven new so songs from that we presumed it would be the album, ‘Second Nature’, then we got it mixed at Steve’s studio, then after a while we decided to sign to AoR Heaven (in Germany), however, they didn’t really promote the album like they should have done and lastly they only released it in Europe, which is was a bit sad, as America was one of our favorite places for music, which is why Lionheart sounds like Lionheart does, due to that allot of our favorite bands are American. Later on, during the recording of ‘The Reality of Miracles’, we were in discussion with Metalville Records who decided to release  ‘The Reality of Miracles’ worldwide which was fantastic! Also, this album was a step up in gear to ‘Second Nature’, as a lot of things improved, like the mastering and guitar sounds, but it was afterwards Covid had started and we were in lockdown, we were able to finish it, as it meant Steve Mann who was isolated and not on tour, also it meant i was home isolated and not all over Europe with the bands I work with. So once we recorded ‘Realities of Miracles’, it was suggested that Metalville re-release ‘Second Nature’, re-mastered with an added track and released worldwide, so basically it’s a second go at ‘Second Nature’.So that’s the story of ‘Second Nature’ being re-released, as it never really got a chance the first time.

MD: You said something rather interesting in revisiting the older songs and re-recording them, so how did that feel to dust off those older songs?

DS : On the first album, we had many songs that didn’t make the cut, so re-recording some was rather quite exciting as we had come a long way throughout the many years, so yeah it was exciting to record them with modern equipment and seeing how we can make them sound, as we wanted to bring them to the modern age, rather than how they sounded in the ’80s.

MD: One thing I am curious to ask, in terms of writing, what is the thought process that goes into the creation of the music?

DS: Well I’ve said many times, this style of Lionheart, it comes to us naturally, we all have been into harmony guitars and vocal harmonies, backing vocals with a big voice in front, so it can come from anywhere, for instance, you can be sitting at home, and a little chill will come to your head, and you’ll be thinking ‘that’’ make a fantastic chorus’, I don’t think any of us have ever start with a verse, I always think the hook is the chorus, and if you got a good chorus or a good three-part harmony that becomes the actual root of the song….I think the verse comes after, as I always think the chorus is the one thing that sells the song and in Lionheart we’re always looking for that big chorus with that three-part harmony.

Another way the ideas come is that we will get an idea for a melody but is on harmony guitars, so we’ll use that harmony guitar part for maybe the intro and then repeat somewhere else in the song, but it really depends on what comes to you first whether it be the chorus or a guitar part, you can always tell when we work together with the three-part harmony as the songs are basically constructed in a similar way with the intro wherever it’s gonna be, be it a chorus intro or harmony intro, and it’s really the same format with the big double chorus in the idle or the big double chorus, in the end, it’s really the way we are and the way we write that comes naturally.

MD: So I wanted to go back to one of your past bands, that being, Praying Mantis…when you wrote for Praying Mantis versus writing now for Lionheart, were there any distinct differences or changes for you? Or was it an easy transition, also…would you consider re-working older Praying Mantis songs for Lionheart?

DS: The funny thing is that before being in Iron Maiden, I have always been in bands with harmony guitars as that’s always been my style of playing. When we first put Lionheart together, we concentrated on putting together the harmony guitars with the vocal harmonies/melodies and being with Praying Mantis for about 15 years, it was quite easy because it is the same lineup ( 2 guitarists and bass player) all three of us singing with a lead singer in front, so the basic songs we wrote with Mantis was basically the same sort of structure with Lionheart, so it was quite easy for me, as the stuff I wrote for Praying Mantis could easily fit into a Lionheart record, and vice versa. They are quite similar song structures, it even worked with Maiden, as before, they didn’t have harmony guitars until I joined the band, so it was me who took the harmony style into Maiden…it all comes naturally to me, so yeah, you are right, Mantis and Lionheart do have a similar structure in their songs.

MD: So I’d like to shift a bit into the Iron Maiden days, for your contribution to the first album has been a crucial building block in the architecture of Maiden, so how does it feel as an artist responsible for a piece of that legacy as well as having fans who are devoted religiously to that one particular album?

DS: Well Basically, Steve and Dave use to watch me play in a pub in East London, and there was twin harmony guitars with the band I was in…but when I first heard the soundhouse tapes with just the one guitar, it was really ‘punk-like’ and very raw, so when they brought me into the band, this was  before I took Clive in, I was working on the soundhouse tapes to make those sounds, bigger, much wider and more interesting, two guitars instead of one, and put some harmonies and a bit of variety rather than one guitar, and I was able to do that with free reign, as Steve let me do that. When we did the first album, I was left in the studio with just the engineer and was able to work on little ideas with the engineer on what could work and what couldn’t work because you don’t wanna take away the rawness and the excitement of the album. But it’s a nice feeling to know you were part of an iconic album that lasted the test of time and yeah…the recognition that you get, allot of Maiden fans know that it was me who took the sound of the harmony guitars into Maiden and even into ‘Killers’ for the songs I worked on, as the preparation for some of those songs were already there, as I had already done that. It’s all the love of the harmony guitars to be honest, that’s just the way I play and it seemed to help make the songs on the first album more interesting. I’m just glad I was a part of an iconic album that has lasted all this time.

MD: So from your perspective,as you seem to stress a lot on harmony,so how important is harmony towards the genre of Rock music and do you think that modern Rock is missing that touch of harmony?

DS: You don’t really need it, take a band like Foo Fighters, who don’t really use guitar solos (very rarely), but for us, it’s just the way we like to write, but there are many bands nowadays who don’t really need guitar solos or harmonies, but to me, every now and then when you hear a harmony or a guitar solo, you don’t need to go all the way with it, but it just makes the sound much bigger, but it has to be used carefully. I just love playing that style, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but when you’re my age, it’s kinda nice to hear those harmony guitars.

MD: In terms of inspiration, what exactly was the main motivation for you to pick up a guitar at an early age, shaping you to the player that you are now?

DS:  I didn’t really start playing until the age of 16, so I started late. I tried football, I wasn’t good enough and I didn’t want to do boxing, so I took up the guitar. The more I listened to bands of the ’60s and 70’s such as Zeplin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But as I got older, my inspiration came from bands such as Toto, as they had a total range of session musicians, and played with a lot of artists around the world from Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand to even Micheal Jackson, they were just phenomenal musicians and you could learn a lot from people like them. But my influences change like at the age of 11 watching the Beatles play on TV right up until now watching guitar riffs on Youtube that will blow your brains apart because they were so good.

MD : If I were to ask for your comment on the genre of Rock music and the scene from then versus now, how would you describe the transition from your perspective?

DS : In the UK we are limited to stations that play rock music, but in America, it’s fantastic as they’re all spoiled. But they are some fantastic bands coming out of the UK and America, I love the new stuff coming from Battle Beast, especially with what Nightwish and Within Temptation are doing, cause it just takes the Symphonic Metal and takes it a step above some rock songs and metal songs with the orchestra with what they are using. So I’m very influenced by the symphonic stuff at the moment as opposed to the very raunchy guitar bands.

MD: Thank you Mr. Stratton for taking the time and having this interview!
DS: Thank you and take care!

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