FEELS LIKE COMING HOME. An interview with bass legend Suzi Quatro

Photo credits: SPV / Steamhammer

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine, Issue 8

I can’t tell you how excited I was to speak to legend Suzi Quatro. She was the first female to become a world-famous rock star on bass, and she has inspired countless musicians, most notably Joan Jett. She has been playing for more than 50 years and was iconic in the ‘70s with such hits as “Can the Can” and “Devil Gate Drive,” and was also a TV star, playing Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days.

Her latest album, No Control, was written with her son Richard Tuckey and harks back to her beginnings as a leather-clad androgynous queen of rock and roll. It’s a sexy slap in the face to wake you up from the boring pop nightmare of recent days. Suzi is back with a 48 Crash!

What were your musical beginnings like?

Well, I come from a musical family. There were five children, and my father was a musician. We all had various music lessons. I took classical piano for quite a while, and I played percussion, too. All of us played quite a few instruments each. My dad played his whole life, so it was a very musical environment. I started an all-girl band with my sister when I was 14. Everybody picked an instrument, and nobody picked the bass. It was given to me, and luckily for me, as soon as I strapped it on, I felt like I’d come home. It was my instrument from the time I played it, you know. I found myself in that instrument. Even though I do still play the piano and drums, even on stage, I found the Suzi instrument.

What was your first bass?

My father gave me my first bass. It’s ridiculous: a 1957 Fender Precision, gold scratch plate, sunburst finish, stripe up the back of the neck and an original Fender Bassman amp. I mean, that just doesn’t happen!

That’s awesome, do you still have it?

I still have the bass, it hangs on the wall. The amp, I don’t know what happened to that. But I won’t take the bass out on the road anymore because it’s too valuable.

What was life like in Detroit back in those days?

Well you had your Motown—I was a Motown freak. I took my bass style from Jamerson. Plus, you had all your rock ‘n’ roll acts like The Pleasure Seekers, Iggy Pop, and Alice Cooper was starting at the same time. There was MC 5, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, so many. I mean, I can go on and on. It was a great, great musical city for the diversity of it, the black and the white elements, you know. Two totally different movements, both equally important.

Did you get to play with those bands when you started out?

Sure. I mean, some of them were just a little bit before us, but we did eventually gig together. They probably had a couple of years’ start on us, the early ones, because we were just beginning and learning, but from about 1966, we started playing with them, yeah.

The Pleasure Seekers were actually pioneers of girl garage band music. What was that like playing back in those days as an all-girl band?

I’m not really a gender person, I didn’t care so much about being all girl as my sister did. I just wanted to play and have fun, so I wasn’t really concerned with the gender thing. When I look back in hindsight, what a wonderful, groundbreaking thing that was! My dad didn’t bring us up to focus on gender because he had four daughters and one son, and he didn’t want dependent females. We were all pretty ballsy, I have to say.

How do you feel you were treated back in those days? Any experiences that might be considered bad today?

Well to be honest, I’ve always had the mindset and the attitude that I was serious about what I was doing. I didn’t say I’m a female musician, I just used to say I’m a musician, and that was the vibe I put out there. So, I didn’t get any s**t from people, I guess really the big lesson is, you get back what you put out and that’s what I put out. I don’t know, I mean when I try to think about it today in hindsight, well I always say, if I was going to give advice to a girl starting out, I would just say don’t ever give anybody the opportunity to say to you that you play okay for a girl. Just don’t let that happen. Just do what you do. Maybe I would like to say to some guy, ‘Hey, you don’t play bad for a guy,’ you know. Yeah, twist it.

What it was like touring back in the early days when you started out with Thin Lizzy and Slade? Any stories from the road?

I came to London in ’71. I went solo and was offered a contract. Then it was about 18 months before I had success, and within that time period, I had finally formed an English band. I joined that tour—it was Slade and Thin Lizzy and me at the beginning. So, I wasn’t famous yet, but I had 20 minutes at the beginning of the show and that was great. I did all my own original material. I became good friends with everybody, and I had just finished being part of a Phil Lynott documentary. I’m good friends with Nadi, I made an album two years ago with Don Powell, the drummer, and Andy Scott from Sweet. I was always just working. I’d hired my English band and I fell in love with my guitar player, and he was my husband for 20 years. We had two kids together, and he was my guitar player for 20 years.

Nadi always said he watched us fall in love, you know. Now I’ve been married 25 years to my German husband. He was a promoter, and now he kind of looks after me most of the time. So, yeah—there’s my story!

So, no wild rock ‘n’ roll stories?

No, because that’s not who I am. You know, I’ve always been a professional about what I do. I don’t have to live the rock and roll image off the stage, I keep it for on the stage. My dad taught me that. I’m a professional.

Photo credits: SPV / Steamhammer
Your worked with your son Richard on your latest album, No Control?

Yes, we wrote the majority of the tracks together. He played guitar on all of them, and the critics are going nuts! I’ve never had such compliments or such waves in my life, it’s really quite nice. I’m getting lyrics quoted back to me, and the critics are dissecting each song. It’s just been marvelous. It had a lot to do with my son wanting to do this album. He came to me with his vision of what he thought I should be doing, and we just went with it. We created and I produced it myself, which also was a big plus because nobody was telling me what to do, which I really like— hence, the title No Control. Talk about feeling creatively free! I’ve never felt so free in my life.

Is that the first time you’ve worked with your son?

Yes, Richard has been in bands and he quietly got very good on guitar, which I didn’t see coming. He just kind of kept it to himself. He had said to me a few times through the years I should be making this album, that album, so finally he came to me and said, “I need to write with you now.” So that meant he was really ready! He pushed my Suzi Quatro buttons and showed me a riff and I just remember saying to him, “I like that. I can work with that.” And off we went. Suddenly, we were making an album and I had a record deal. It’s great how it happened because it wasn’t manufactured.

Once I realized about the third demo, I realized it was getting serious. We were making an album and wanted everything to happen naturally. I didn’t want to force a song or a style. Whatever each song we’re doing is saying, that’s what that song was going to be. I wanted each song to have a personality of its own. That is what everybody is loving on this album.

The songs are very different styles and influences.

Yeah, I mean there is some staunch Suzi stuff, you know, like “No Control,” Macho Man,” and “Heavy Duty.” But then there is “Heart of the Line,” “Leopard Skin Pillbox,” “Going Down Blues,” “Going Home,” and things like “Strings,” which is one of my finest songs ever. You know, it’s just a wonderful album. I’m just so proud of it.

Is Richard touring with you?

Not yet. He’s in America right now with Rat Boy. But I told him that if this album does well, as it seems to be doing—it’s starting to chart and it’s in download charts and iTunes—I said would bring him on the road with me. I told him I would bring him out as a special treat to the audience on every song we do on the album—that’s my duty as an artist and as a mother.

You’re currently in the middle of a big tour, right?

I just finished Australia, and then I went to the Czech Republic. I’ve been on the promotion trail nonstop—I haven’t had five seconds to breathe! In one day I start my second headlining UK arena tour, so that’s 10 shows, no days off. Then I go to Germany and do 20, which I’m really looking forward to. Those are my solo, sit-down, two-hour shows, which I love best of all because you can show everything. It’s just me with my seven-piece, sometimes nine-piece band, and it goes from A to Z. You get the whole rainbow.

Will you be coming out to the U.S. at all?

Yes, you know, I did the River Creek Casino in Canada last year, and it sold out. It was an amazing success. So now because of that and the interest that this album is creating, I’ll do some gigs in America, absolutely. I’ve gotta get back. That’s on my bucket list.

With all the touring, how do you keep going? Do you still have passion for it?

Oh, yeah. I always said I was put on this earth to entertain people. It’s what I get the most pleasure from. Never in my entire 55-year career have I gone out there with the attitude that you’re going to love me, no, no, no. I’ve got to make you love me. Each gig is the challenge, I love it. I don’t need the money, so I only do it because I love it. Performing is the air I breathe.

How do you keep yourself going on the road? Do you work out?

What I do on stage is an aerobic workout. If I don’t keep it up when I’m not working, then I won’t be able to keep it up on stage. So yes, I jog, go to the gym, do yoga, lift weights. But nothing gives me a workout like the one I get on stage. My husband gets pissed off—I’ll do a two-hour show and come off stage, and he says, “You’re not out of breath!” I’m like yeah, I don’t plan on retirement, I don’t, I just don’t. When it’s over it’s over, I’ll know when it’s over.

What message would you like to give to aspiring musicians?

First of all, to the females: make sure it’s what you want to do if you choose it, because it’s a really hard job and you have to give up a lot to focus on your goal. That true in any business. I tell people to always be professional, and if you’re going to pick up an instrument, play it properly, don’t play at it, play it. And always, if you’re a female, even though you’re one of the guys and I don’t do gender, I say always keep your femininity as your line not to cross. That is the line that belongs to you.

What bass are you playing these days?

I’ve gone through a lot of different basses through the years. Fender was my first, then I went to Les Paul Professional, that’s what I brought to England. Then I went to an EBO, Gibson’s bass version of the Chuck Berry model. I had a Ripper, then I was sponsored by BC Rich for a long time. I played Status for a while, and then finally I came back home and I’m back on my Fenders now.

Photo credits: SPV / Steamhammer
What’s your preferred amp?

I use Orange when I’m able to because they sponsor me, and when I can’t get that, I’ll use Ampeg.

You’ve done some acting in the past. Any aspirations to act in the future?

I would like to do some more, yes, but music just seems to be taking over everything at the moment. I do like acting very much and I do consider whatever comes at me. I have a documentary coming out this year that I have been working at for four years now. It’s a great documentary, a real story. I’m a real stickler for truth. I hate bulls**t, I like the truth.

Will there ever be a movie about Suzi Quatro?

I would love, love, love, love to do a movie about my life because I’m the original! I’m the first female bassist to have success, that’s in the history books. I don’t think the story has ever been told properly, so I’d like to tell the true story of what it was like. Not the bulls**t Hollywood story, the true story.

So if it did come out, you’d definitely be behind the scenes running things?

Yeah, I would have to be involved, and I would probably appear at the end.

Photo credits: SPV / Steamhammer
You were once considered glam. How you would describe your music today?

I never ever was glam. I only got shoved into that category because my hits started in that era. The glam rockers had the makeup on and the crazy clothes, I had no makeup on and wore a plain black leather suit. I’m based in rock ‘n’ roll with a little bit of every element thrown in for good measure.

So, was Elvis the inspiration for the leather suit?

Yeah, absolutely. At 6 years old I saw him and decided I wanted to be him. He stayed with me my whole life. I saw the comeback special and knew that when I had my chance, I would be wearing leather.

So who were your musical influences other than Elvis?

Otis Redding was a big influence, Jamerson on bass, and Bob Dylan. One zillion percent, Bob Dylan. And believe it or not, Billie Holiday.

What artists today do you like; are there any bands that you’re really into right now?

I like Prodigy, I like Keen, I love Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their bass player Flea is amazing. I like Ed Sheeran because I think he’s a marvelously talented songwriter. I like Adele. She’s got a great voice. Anybody who can do a Bob Dylan song better than he can, you’ve got to count.

Rock is not as main stream right now as it once was. Do you think it’s going to make a comeback?

I hope so. I don’t like all this inorganic music, you know? I think if you listen to “Easy Pickings” on the album, it’s about music reality shows. I do think that, as entertaining as they are, they have not had a good effect on the music business. The hard workers have been replaced with people who want to be famous. That’s not what this business is all about, and it shouldn’t be. I would play for nothing. Money and fame have never been my motivation. Even though I have money today and I’m famous, it’s still not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do what I do. This girl works hard for the money, I’ll tell you.

Sasha Vallely

Sasha Vallely has been performing across the globe for over a decade with bands such as Sash The Bash, Midnight Larks, Spindrift and The Warlocks, she has guested with The Brian Jonestown Massacre, members of QOTSA, The Hives, Portishead, Massive Attack, Cat Power, Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, The Seeds, The Blacks Angels and Jello Biafra along with many others. She has composed independent film scores and feature films such as El Gringo starring Christian Slater, directed music videos and produced and starred in the documentary Spindrift, Ghost of The West. www.sashthebash.com


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