BEFORE I HIT THE STAGE
Backstage Rock’n’Roll Moments in New York City
* Author Q&A *
How did you meet each other?
Paul Miles: It was at a rare Guns N’ Roses club show in New York City actually, during Fashion Week in February 2012. We were both on the VIP balcony at Terminal 5 and were introduced by a mutual friend, bass player Rob DeLuca (Sebastian Bach, UFO, Spread Eagle). After the show, we all walked around the corner to my apartment and partied until dawn.
Jason Obrotka: Then a few nights later, we saw GNR again live at The Ritz – now Webster Hall, which was a pretty historic night. I had recently been touring with Guns as their official tour photographer, when they were playing arenas across North America and stadiums in South America.
How did you come up with the idea for this rock photography book?
Miles: I was at a Turbonegro concert in Brooklyn. It was a free house party show put on by shoe manufacture Vans and about 2,000 people rolled up to their warehouse – the biggest American show of Turbonegro’s 20-plus-year career. I was there to shoot the band on stage, but had a case of the mid-week blues. Bored by the support bands, and getting annoyed by some drunks in the crowd, I started thinking that I would much prefer to be backstage at that moment, just hanging out; that would be much more interesting to me. And then I thought others would probably find that more interesting too, so what if I could capture that with my camera and turn those shots into something cool for people to enjoy. I knew that creating such a rock photography book would be a huge undertaking, so I reached out to Jason to see if he wanted to collaborate.
Obrotka: That’s it – and here we are! Paul told me that the title and everything all came together in his mind at that moment in the photo pit really quickly, just like how some songwriters describe how fast their best song came about.
Are you both from New York City?
Obrotka: I was born in Texas but have lived in New Jersey forever, so I’ve been coming to New York City to see bands and have fun all my life, since I’m just a stone’s throw away over the Hudson River.
Miles: I’m actually Australian. After travelling back and forth to New York City a lot, I relocated to Manhattan during 2011. It’s the best city in the world to me, but after living there for three years, I decided to move back to Melbourne, Australia to be closer to my kids. That’s definitely the most rocking city down under.
Was it difficult getting access to the stars?
Miles: Yes, and no… we simply put together our vision for the book and a plan to execute. We’d keep a constant eye on the concert schedule and when a new show was announced in New York City, we’d reach out to that band’s management, tell them what we were up to, and see if they were willing to provide the access and participate with us. One in five welcomed us into their pre-show inner-sanctum, and then we literally had anywhere between three minutes and three hours backstage to get the shots on the night. There’s sixty bands and solo artists that came through to make the final version of the book.
What show stands out as the most special?
Miles: The Yardbirds are a legendary English band from the sixties, with successive iconic guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page – right before Led Zeppelin. Many don’t realise that their original guitarist before those three was Anthony “Top” Topham, who left the band the same year they formed in 1963. Fast-forward to 2013, I was the only photographer shooting Top as he was about to walk on stage with The Yardbirds and play with them again for the very first time in 50 years! That was certainly special.
Obrotka: For me, it was probably when the pioneers of doom metal, Pentagram, played Saint Vitus in Brooklyn for the first time, and we got to spend three hours in the venue’s basement dressing room hanging out and shooting the shit. If you haven’t seen the awardwinning documentary called Last Days Here about their singer and main man Bobby Liebling, do yourself a favour. It’s an amazing story of his struggles with heroin and crack, jail time, etc. It’s so eye opening and such a great story! After seeing that film, then spending that time with Bobby – it was truly special.
Miles: Yeh, we had fun in that venue’s basement. Another night we were shooting Huntress there – I love those shots of their witchy blonde singer Jill Janus on the dank, old underground steps. I also dig the one of her licking David Lee Roth’s face!
Any other standout shows?
Obrotka: The Violent Femmes also stands out to me. They were to play in New York’s Central Park, but as we hung out in the park’s backstage area, a huge thunderstorm rolled in and they had to call off the show because of the danger of lightning – I remember getting absolutely drenched that night! The show got rescheduled to Roseland Ballroom later in the year, so it was great to shoot them again backstage in that famous venue. They were actually one of the last bands to play there, before Lady Gaga played the final show. I saw photos recently of it getting demolished, which is a shame given the venue’s history.
Miles: Well I went shopping with Saxon! It was Friday the 13th and we were sitting around with plenty of time before the influential British heavy metal band’s set. Their singer Biff Byford said to me, ‘Hey, (guitarist) Doug (Scarratt) and I are going for a walk, do you wanna come?’ so I said, “Sure.” We were in Midtown on 42nd St, so it was just a short stroll around the corner to the main part of Times Square. As I shot the guys while they walked around, taking in all the neon of Times Square, a lot of people recognised Biff and came up to say hello and get a selfie. When a shop would catch their eye, we’d duck in and have a look around, and they’d sometimes hold up a piece of clothing and ask my opinion on it. Now, if someone had told years ago that one day I’d be giving my fashion opinions to Saxon while shopping in New York’s famous Times Square with them, I would have said, “You’re bonkers!” Spending time backstage with these stars, were you able to see any affects the road has had on them?
Miles: Certainly the affects of the rock’n’roll lifestyle… one of our first shoots was with legendary blues guitarist Johnny Winter, who even played at Woodstock. We greeted him as his car service pulled up on 42nd Street outside B.B. King’s Blues Club. When we then took the venue’s service elevator down to the backstage area, Johnny got a little distressed when the elevator stopped working with us shut inside – apparently he struggled with intense anxiety all his life. He was 68 at the time, but more frail than I expected. His emphysema was obvious to me since my Dad was in his final stages of that disease at the time, but you could just see that his physical body was damaged from his addictions, and I think you can see that in the photos.
Obrotka: Yeh, but that said though, he was a soft-spoken gentleman backstage that night and was happily doing press interviews, showing us his tattoos and telling us stories about them, and just being a great guy. Unfortunately he passed away in his Swiss hotel room the following year. It was certainly a privilege to be able to spend that time with him.
Are there any particular pages in the book that you love?
Miles: The book is presented in chronological order of the concerts taking place, as you come on the journey with us, and there’s this one spread I call “Glam vs Grunge” that’s turned out really interesting: on the left page is ‘80s glam rock band L.A. Guns from Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. You see them getting ready, tying a bandanna headband, wearing scarves, etc. Then on the next page you have Mark Arm of Seattle’s ‘90s grunge pioneers Mudhoney – he’s wearing a plain t-shirt and basic jeans, and is looking towards the L.A. Guns page with a look of, ‘What the fuck are you guys wearing?’ It just so happens to capture the sentiment of that glam to grunge crossover period from the early nineties perfectly I reckon.
Obrotka: Yeh, it was cool that you got to meet and shoot Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters that night, who was the drummer in Nirvana before Dave Grohl.
Miles: Yeh, he was a nice guy.
Obrotka: I shot Soulfly, the band led by Max Cavalera from South America’s biggest ever metal band Sepultura, who is now also in Killer Be Killed. There’s this shot in the book of Max and his bassist Tony Campos, both looking very metal and flashing the horns. Also in the picture is their drummer Zyon, who is Max’s son, as well as their little dog Spanky. I always smile when I see that shot ‘cause I like the juxtaposition of the metal and family, yet at the same time the heavy metal community is very much family to many in it.
Miles: True. Another spread I like is from Halloween. Zappa Plays Zappa is a Frank Zappa tribute act led by his eldest son Dweezil Zappa. They’re keeping Frank’s tradition of playing Halloween shows in New York alive. So on the one page we have a shot of the shorthaired Dweezil in his Beacon Theatre dressing room, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking pretty handsome and innocent. Then on the opposite page is a photo of Faster Pussycat singer Taime Downe, who is decked out in face paint style makeup, with long straggly dyed hair, a sparkly shirt, crossbones, lace-up leather pants, you name it. Some might think he’s scary looking and dressed-up for Halloween, yet the conservative shot opposite was actually from Halloween.
Obrotka: I just had a flashback – once I finished shooting Dweezil Zappa that night, I used his dressing room to get into my Halloween costume. I remember looking into his mirror, putting all this black face paint on, as I turned myself into Rick James and got my funk on!
What was the best pre-show ritual you came across?
Miles: Having sung in bands before, I always found the vocal warm-ups to be interesting. Danko Jones spent time blowing up balloons as part of his routine, and there are some great shots in the book of Courtney from The Dandy Warhols and Andrew W.K. going through their vocal warm-ups.
Obrotka: The most common one was right before a band would walk out of the dressing room, all band members would come together in a circle, often arm in arm, and say a few words… kind of like a sporting team before they take the field. Sometimes it would be something motivational, sometimes spiritual, other times just ‘I love you guys’ or ‘Let’s give our fans a great fucking show tonight!’ Those were always great, but difficult moments to quickly capture while not interfering.
Were all the photos taken in backstage dressing rooms?
Miles: The majority were, but sometimes we’d venture outside for some fresh air or whatever. Like with Saxon that I talked of earlier, and with Kid Congo Powers. He’s a guitarist who has been a member of these great, dark, alternative bands like Gun Club, The Cramps, as well as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. There’s a cool shot of him on a street corner in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Obrotka: We also got to spend time on tour buses as well, since some bands would use that home base as their dressing room, and then just run through the venue stage door for show time. It was fun sitting around talking and shooting them on their tour buses.
Now, there’s been mention of VIP guests in the book. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Obrotka: Sure. Well, on the book’s cover is Orianthi; she’s currently dating Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. She’s a young singer-songwriter and brilliant guitarist from Australia, who was Michael Jackson’s guitarist right before he died, and then became the first female guitarist to play in Alice Cooper’s band. When she played her solo show in New York, Alice Cooper came along, so it was great to be able to shoot them both together backstage and have the Coop in the book too.
Miles: Another night I was shooting the singer of The Runaways, Cherie Currie, who was playing with Miss Guy from the Toilet Boys. Miss Guy is close friends with Debbie Harry of Blondie and often does her makeup, so it was fun to be able to quickly shoot these three blondes together backstage in that moment. A few minutes later we had moved into Cherie’s dressing room and NYC’s most famous rock photographer Bob Gruen was soon handing me his camera asking me to take a shot of him with Debbie and Cherie. That’s something I really enjoyed about making this book: those experiences that money just can’t buy.
Obrotka: For sure… it was great to be able to include Lita Ford from The Runaways in the book too.
How did you get the cover shot?
Obrotka: I was at Webster Hall, waiting to be let into the dressing room, waiting, waiting, and waiting. I had my camera in hand ready for the OK to enter. Finally, the Tour Manager came up to me and said something like, “Watch this!” He knocked on the dressing room door; I had my camera ready. Orianthi opened the door and peaked out, looking to see who was knocking, so I snapped the photo. I eventually got access to the dressing room but none of the photos of her were as good as that first one. I never knew we would end up using that photo on the cover, but I guess it shows that you just have to always be ready to get the shot, and be in the right place at the right time.
Who is the sexiest artist in the book?
Obrotka: There are some great shots of the band Barb Wire Dolls. They’re a pretty new punk band from Greece who are touring the world, and fronted by this blonde bombshell singer called Isis Queen. She’s provocative, passionate, and smoking hot, as you see in the book.
Miles: I thought you were going to say Stryper – those photos are awesome! It’s like you were channelling Mark Weiss back in the hair metal ‘80s while shooting them… “To Hell with the Devil!”
From your experience, do support bands and headliners get along?
Obrotka: There was probably more friction and strange vibes amongst some band members at times, rather than between bands. We didn’t come across any backstage fights between bands, so I’d say that they generally do get along. Most of the time they would just be focussed on their own preparations, doing their own thing… when they weren’t on their smartphones and laptops.
Miles: Right! I shot the marquee event of the CBGB’s Festival, which was a fantastic night with all these punk pioneers catching up with each other and sharing laughs. It was great seeing and capturing the camaraderie between the likes of Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols, Sylvain of the New York Dolls, Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, and Walter Lure from Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, all backstage together having fun doing what they still love to do.
Is it still a case of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll backstage?
Miles: Not so much these days it seems. Both those elements are certainly still there with the rock, and we certainly got to witness and shoot some of that, but it’s so much more toned down these days for lots of reasons. I believe the bands are much more reliant on touring income to support themselves these days, as opposed to revenue from record sales, so they just have to be on their game more. Quite a lot of bands would ask us not to shoot any drug use, while others wouldn’t sign-off on inclusion of drug use or nudity in any of the photos.
A surprising amount of band members are sober these days too, as am I, so I could relate to them, while Jason would party with others.
Obrotka: Nashville Pussy and NoFX are a couple of bands that did allow me to shoot and print anything – those bands are the real deal man, with no bullshit. You’ll see that in the book. I think I’m still hungover from those shows!
For those interested in the photography side, what gear do you guys use?
Miles: I shoot with Canon and always prefer to travel light, especially at rock shows. So I’ll just have a couple of lenses, one to capture the whole room wide, and another telephoto zoom lens so I can get up close and personal shots while hanging back and not getting in the face of an artist. I’m not a tech-head, so I don’t really care about tech specs and the latest and greatest technology. I keep it simple and just focus my energy on the experience and capturing those moments and the emotions.
Obrotka: I shoot with high-end Canon, and use some other little gadgets.
Did you shoot on New Year’s Eve to close out the year?
Obrotka: Yeh, I was shooting The Jim Jones Revue, who had flown in from London and were headlining at Bowery Electric. Sami Yaffa from Hanoi Rocks was playing too, so that night was a great celebration to finish the year.
Miles: Meanwhile, I was over at Irving Plaza where the king of partying Andrew W.K. was holding an event called ‘Never Ending Party with Never Ending Beer.’ Before he hit the stage at the strike of midnight, there was a big countdown from 666 – yes, 666! As it got to the pointy end of the countdown, it was just me and him in the dressing room: me shooting him peeing in a trash can actually, while hearing 127, 126, 125… it was pretty funny and very party! It turned out to be a great way to end the book.
What else can readers expect from this rock photography book?
Miles: Well, style-wise, they’ll see that some photos were candidly captured from a fly-onthe- wall perspective, while others have more of a portrait session feel to them, which just depended on the mood, available time, and what was happening before each show. I just think it’s a unique, contemporary piece of work that honestly captures the backstage rock’n’roll life these days, shown over one year in the world’s greatest city. Whether you’re chilling at home with a coffee while flipping through the hardcover book in your hands, or perhaps looking at the Kindle ebook version while on a train to a job you hate, I think readers will enjoy the escape of checking out hundreds of compelling images and bits of commentary, simply as an entertaining insight into the reality of today’s backstage world.
Obrotka: We’ve certainly included a really diverse range of rock bands and artists, so I trust there’s something that everyone will dig in there. I just hope people looking at the book enjoy it as much as I did while shooting the artists’ intimate moments and crazy antics, and the shots give them a real appreciation of what those moments would have been like.
What’s your scene?
Miles:I just do my best to live a life full of the things I love. Rock’n’roll, photography, New York City – they are three things right there that I love a lot!
Before I Hit The Stage (Outskirts Press, 2015)
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