Tony Harnell - vocalist, TNT / Westworld
On the phone with Philip Anderson - 1999
Norway has not often been a country associated with many musical exports, excepting the Black Metal scene of the mid-90s, but what it has exported has usually been quality. TNT is one such band that hit the pop market during the 1980s. Their hit "10,000 Lovers" hit both radio and MTV during the mid 1980s and then, with subsequent albums of a pop vein and the radio market moving into the grunge fashion, the band seemed to fade from view. Never really breaking up, instead just moving into other projects, TNT has recently resurfaced with a new CD, "Transistor" [an anthology CD entitled "Big Bang" is being released at press time - ed.]. Transistor is a step away from the tried and true TNT as the band moved successfully into a more alternative direction, although retaining some of their classic sound for some songs. The catch is two-fold for TNT though - 1) The same old pop market isn't as prevalent these days and, 2) even with the style changes, TNT will still be best known for their past efforts which may hold possible newer fans at bay. None the less, TNT's latest effort is a fine example of how bands should learn to move forward to avoid stagnation and still keep their souls.
In the midst of all of this, TNT's vocalist, Tony Harnell, had managed to land himself in a second band called Westworld. This features members of Riot, Rainbow, Blackmore's Night and Danger Danger. Westworld is more of a retro act that heralds back to the days when metal was really just well-performed hard rock - heavy, but able to be understood.
We recently had a chance to talk with Tony and discuss the past and present of both bands and himself. Tony Harnell certainly does not like to sit still and seems to grasp any opportunity to latch onto a good working project in order to better share his talents and perform, as we found out in a two-part interview. The interview was spaced both before and after we had a chance to review the latest CD from TNT.
(The talk begins with a discussion of a previous meeting with Tony at The Stone in San Francisco after a TNT performance there around 1990. The topic during that quick chat was whether or not TNT's lyrics were Christian based or mystical)
K2K: The show was in San Francisco. I don't know if you remember the show or not.
TH: I remember after the show. No, actually I remember the show. I think it was a good show.
K2K: You were busy talking to a lot of people and had made a quick retort back to me when I asked you if your lyrics were Christian-influenced. You had said, "No. If you paid closer attention, you would find that it's actually more mystical."
TH: Is that what I said? Hmmm. OK.
K2K: Lyrically, what did you base most of your songs on?
TH: OK, so we're starting the interview with older material now.
(Tony realizes that I haven't heard Transistor yet due to mailing delays)
TH: Personally, I would feel better if you had heard this [new] album. It's a very big and important departure for us. It's really important to hear it.
K2K: So, we'll cover the older material first and then continue after the CD comes. I had read on a TNT history website that the band had had a "falling out", so to put, and also I've read that TNT will not be touring.
TH: I wonder why it said that. [Regarding the touring] That is not confirmed. We have no intention of NOT touring, let's put it that way. If the opportunity presents itself. We're starting to have a little jolt in a couple of territories where the album is being played on commercial radio stations. There's a song that they've latched onto and we're starting to see a direct response in sales. That's what we always look for. A tour may eventually happen. Obviously I can't say for sure. I think it's going to be a slow build process with this new album because it's so different from anything that we've done before. It sounds like us though. It's contemporary without being trendy. It "works" today. In other words, it doesn't sound like it was done in 1989. It sounds like it was done in 1999. It's still us and it's still melodic and it still has it's roots where we came from. We just incorporating a lot of newer techniques in the studio in the song arrangements and the lyrics.
Almost every aspect of it has sort of changed. I think for the better, to me anyway. Like you would hear from any artist who is staying abreast of things, I guess - without being trendy, again I must stress. It's not one of those records that a few of our contemporaries have done from the 80s where you go, "What the hell is that?!" I don't have anyone specific in mind.
(We then got onto discussing the latest Def Leppard album as an example of 1980s artists working in the late 1990s)
K2K: When I reviewed "Euphoria", my first reaction, for some reason, was that I wanted to hate the album [based on an interview with Vivian Campbell - ed.], but I can't. It's OK actually.
TH: Yeah, it is OK. It's almost like a nice tablecloth. It works. You can eat on it, but it's not spectacular.
(We got onto the discussion of criticisms)
TH: It's funny, one person was critical of our new album in an interesting way. I think it was just a fan who had written into one of the websites or something that he had told me about. It was a comment like, we had "sold out" by updating our sound. I thought that was quite interesting and it showed me how wrong and ignorant people can be about music. You know, if that's what we were trying to do - sell out - we certainly would not do what we did.
If we were just trying to make money and that was all that we wanted to do, believe me, we would have tried to come as close to "Tell No Tales" or "Intuition" as we possibly could. The problem with us is, that was 10 or 12 years ago and I just think that I've changed about as much as a person could change and still be in the same skin. I think that applies fairly to the other band members as well. It's just impossible to go back and duplicate a sound that you did at a certain time when your surrounding were different and your life was different and the music and the things you were doing, everything was different. To go back and try to duplicate something would be a lie and it would be fake and phony. To me it would be cheating the fans more than doing something really honest that you really believed in. That's where I'm at and the band's at.
K2K: I have to say, not derogatorily, that those [early TNT] are some of my favorite albums, but today, I just don't want to hear them every day like I used to. But, when I do, it brings back the good memories.
TH: I don't like to listen to them either. (laughs) Honestly, I didn't listen to many of our contemporaries back then. I didn't really like a lot of that music. I kind of resented the fact that we were lumped in with all of them in many ways. That was the genre and that was the time and that was fine, but I didn't listen to many of those bands. I was aware of them and I saw the videos on MTV, but I didn't buy anybody's records and I didn't sit and listen. If I was listening to anybody's records, it was stuff like U2 or modern stuff or old stuff. Very little 80s rock. Now when I listen to that stuff, it really sounds shallow. It doesn't have much meat under the surface. It's kind of like all production and all glitz and nothing going on inside.
(In discussing how my musical tastes have changed with the years as other people don't grow and call those who get bored of metal as "sell-outs")
TH: I don't get that. The Beatles had an 8-year career and they changed about as much as a band could change. I understand they were huge, but people say things to me like, "Well your band hasn't sold enough records for you to change as much as you have." What? What is that? That is such bullshit. I'm still an artist. I still want to explore my art form. Why should record sales hold me back from that? If anything, I have nothing to lose.
K2K: Speaking of your particular art form - How have your vocals changed now that high vocals are so big these days?
TH: To be honest with you, I would have toned it down whether it was big or not. Personally, I still have it, I still use it on occasion, but I use it differently now. I think that's the biggest difference now. I'm singing almost a different vocal style on every song. There's probably three or four that have a common denominator vocally and the rest of them are all over the place. I'm low, I'm mid-range, I'm poppy, I'm very metal, I'm just everywhere. There's one song that has a slight R&B flavor to it. It's all rock, totally rock, but it's just that I'm exploring a lot of different vibes. I did a falsetto on a couple of ballads, going in and out. Just being really loose and having fun with my voice.
K2K: The one thing that impressed me most about your singing live is that most singers will not try for their highest notes when performing live, whereas you not only hit those notes but then went a step further up the range. How where you able to do that when most can't?
TH: I don't know. I just prided myself in it. I didn't party on the road. I tried to take care of myself and eat right, not stay up late and not drink. What people don't realize is that alcohol will dry your throat out for three or four days and it takes some time to recover from that. It was just my fear of not duplicating the record. I was way too freaked out about that. It was a phobia of mine of going onstage and not getting that across to the fans, because I knew that they expected it. I knew that they probably didn't get that from most singers. I figured that I would be the one guy who was able to hit them all the time.
The one guy who I used to love who I used to go see in the old days was [Judas] Priest. Rob [Halford, vocalist] was always able to pretty much nail those notes and I figured that I should be able to do that too. But, I'm not so much about that now. I still want to come across as a good singer, of course, but it's not so much my focus anymore. I'm more focused on delivering the song with the right emotion for the song without thinking, "OK, here I gotta show off." It's not about that. More maturity.
K2K: The one beef that I had about the earlier songwriting - it always seemed as though you would start well, you'd build up and then - poof, "we're done". You'd cut the songs short by about 2 or 4 bars. It's like it didn't let the listener "come down" from the song.
TH: You don't think that they were long enough? Well, maybe that's a good thing. I think what was cool about the older albums is that they were short. We didn't do that to cheat people, I just think that my feeling, and Ronnie's in agreement with me, is that you see these people making fourteen song or seventeen song albums, but there's five good songs. I would rather give people ten really good songs and make them solid and memorable. I'd rather leave them wanting more and "can't wait for the next album" than oversaturate with fluff which is just music that is not very good. There are albums out there that have seventeen tracks that are great. I happen to think that the last Alanis [Morisette] album is brilliant. I absolutely love her. If you haven't listened to it more than once or twice, I highly recommend doing so.
(Finally, we get back to the opening question which concerned the lyrical content of TNT)
K2K: What was the influence back then versus now?
TH: It's similar, I think that the difference would be - I know you asked me about the Christian thing, and at the risk of not offending anyone, because I wouldn't want to, I think it wasn't so much about that, it wasn't about that at all, and it wasn't even really mystical. I don't even know why I said that back then. I probably couldn't find the right words. I think, for me, it was probably a lot more spiritual. I think that's a bigger word and it doesn't lock me into a box. I think I'm still pretty much at that same place. I think that now, the lyrics are less preachy and more personal. When I sit down to write no, I don't know what I'm going to write about most of the time. I just kind of let the lyrics come out day by day. If I have a song to write that we already have melody and music to - I used to write the lyrics last - I'll just take a tape with me and go someplace by myself and let them come out. The melody usual dictates something and something just comes. Then I'll just start developing an idea. What's cool about that you get a lot of stuff that starts off of stream of consciousness and you go with it and make sense somehow. I think that way it's more honest and it usually lasts somehow.
K2K: Why did you guys break up?
TH: When? In '92? We had just basically reached the end of our rope, in terms of putting out these albums that we were really proud of and not reaching the success that we thought we deserved. We just kind of burnt ourselves out. We had spent tons of money on these albums and were basically broke and disillusioned. We needed a break from each other and the business at some point. Ronni continued. He put a band together after that. Not too successful, but he was working.
K2K: The way I read it, you wanted international success and Ronni was happy being a huge success in Norway.
TH: Yeah. I don't know. I think at the time there might have been some truth to that, but I think that they were jaded by the fact that we were so huge in Scandinavia and Japan, that they lived there. The sense that they got was that they were enormous. That was fine. He could go back home and continue to have a successful career and make plenty of money and be a big fish in a little pond. Me, being over here [in the U.S.] got a different sense of things.
K2K: How did you guys get together to play together, practice or record?
TH: We usually fly to each other. I usually go over there. They've spent time in the states, but neither one of us has been willing to move to the other country.
K2K: The album after "Intuition", I have never heard, but some people had said that if you like the old stuff, don't listen to that one. How do you feel about that?
TH: Whatever. (laughing) Everyone's got their opinions. Can I say something? I really can't listen to that album. It was definitely a sense that it was a do or die record. It was right on the cusp of the whole grunge thing. We didn't even know it was coming. We didn't know what we were about to face. We had no idea. There was a lot of tension building throughout the whole process. It took forever to get done. The producer was horrible. I could go on and on about it. The funny thing is, there are a lot of fans out there who, to my complete surprise, call that our best album.
K2K: The reasoning for why it was supposed to not be so good is that, compared to the more spiritual aspect of the earlier albums, that one was more of a "get drunk and get laid" type of sound.
TH: I think we were trying to somehow, a little late, fit in with the bands that were doing really well at the time, like the Warrants and all that crap. I thought it was a very big mistake.
(We went on to discuss how the new album needs to be listened to without bias and without expecting to hear classic TNT. Tony also explained the intricacies of "less is more")
End of Part I
(Two or three weeks later, Tony and I continued our interview after my listening many times over to Transistor)
TH: I presume by now that you have listened to the CD.
K2K: Even right now as I do every day. You made a comment before about listening to it [Transistor] without being a TNT fan, to keep it unbiased. You were right about the lesser guitar riffs on there. I personally would have preferred more [riffs].
TH: As far as soloing? I can't say it's been a common comment, but it's been a comment amongst the more traditional fans that have heard it. I've heard it even from the record company. I think that, in some ways, he's done an interesting thing on this album by, if you're coming from a place maybe where you're a new kid and you're listening to this, somehow he's doing what the album is doing, and that's maybe bridging the gap between how people are playing guitar now and the way they were playing then and to try to bring the kids, slowly, back into that kind of guitar playing without hitting them over the head all at once.
K2K: On the second song "Wide Awake", if it was a different song, it would almost be like the "sexy guy trying to get the chicks with his vocal style" thing, but it fits the song so it works out right.
TH: Yeah, that's pretty much what I was going for. That's what this album's all about for me. It was all about me figuring out if I didn't have to fit into a box, how can I make this individual song shine.
K2K: The first song and the last song, "Just Like God" and "No Guarantees", work well for the alternative radio market.
TH: "Just Like God" was starting to roll on a few stations. It started doing really well. We were charting on Album Network or somewhere. Then it just kind of petered out. Apparently there were problems with me singing high on the chorus. (laughing) That's because "alternative people don't do that stuff".
K2K: Yeah, now you have to worry about Ronni's guitar playing because "people don't play guitar like that" and now your vocals. It's OK to sing like they do now, but why trash your voice every day?
TH: It's a very difficult thing. I think that it's really hard for me. I think that I'm actually coming into the prime of my singing right now. I think I'm hitting a point with my age and my experience that I'm probably singing better than ever.
(We then moved on to discussing Westworld as well)
TH: The Westworld album is something that came about as a fluke. It was originally something that I had no interest in doing. For me it was about getting TNT out and getting that to be as contemporary as possible while maintaining some relationship to the old sound. Outside of that, I plan on going forward in some direction.
K2K: What's your main project right now? Westworld or TNT?
TH: That's a very tricky question actually. I really don't know how to answer that. I would say that when the Westworld thing came about, I was like, "OK. This is interesting. I feel I've got to write with this guy." We got together and we wrote. It was interesting stuff because I thought that it was going to be different enough that I thought it would be fun to do and worthwhile doing because I figure that there are a lot of old fans that can only accept me singing a certain way, as I do with Westworld. I've spoken with Japanese press and even here I've spoken with fans that prefer the way I sing on Westworld. I kind of feel, "I can do it. I can still do that." If I have to have kind of a dual career where I please some of the older fans and do that straight ahead singing, then that's what I'll do. It's so different, the audiences are so different, that even tomorrow, if I decided to do a pop album and sign to Columbia, no one's going to know what Westworld is.
K2K: Westworld has all these legendary musicians on it, compared to TNT being TNT. Westworld seems more metal, but more stripped down.
TH: Raw. 70s, kind of.
K2K: Back to the current TNT album. "Crashing Down" has a really interesting hook to it. Are you going to release that as a single?
TH: I've been saying since the album was basically done that that song was a hit. Ronni and I both. He's been playing it for months over in Norway, way before it came out. All of his friends and all of the radio station people that he knew and both of us have been trying to get that to happen. I still think that an alternative station would play it.
K2K: How did you come up with that hook?
TH: It's funny, actually. Ronni and I have this chemistry that's just really odd. Most of the album was done and we had recorded. The way that we did this album, we took song by song - we had the whole band staying at the studio, in the band house - we would pick a song a day, work it out, arrange it with the producer - sometimes we'd get two done - but usually we'd pick a song a day, rehearse it in the studio with all of the instruments mic'ed the way they were going to be for the track, get it the way we wanted it and then lay it down. We did that day by day and then we realized, "Oh. Now we need a couple of more songs." Ronni and I went into a bedroom at the band house. We said, "Don't worry guys, we'll be out in half hour and we'll have the next song." We were ready to record it. We knew we had to record something that day because everyone in the studio was waiting. So we went in and we came out a half hour later and we said, "Check this out, guys." Literally, we went from writing it to recording the track you hear, I guess from finishing writing, it was recorded an hour later, arranged and everything. I think it's one of the best songs on the album.
K2K: Isn't spontaneity sometimes the best way to come up with stuff?
TH: Absolutely. I find that sometimes when you have to come up with something, you just figure out a way of doing it. People always say that you can't force it. If you've been on a roll and you've been writing - OK, if you haven't written anything in a year, then you might not be able to force something - but if you've been in the groove of writing, especially with your writing partner, you sit down and it just comes out.
K2K: Sometimes it might not be "forced". It might be an idea that's hidden in your head.
TH: Yeah. Well he played the riff for me like he didn't think that I was going to like it. I don't know if he just came up with it on the spur of the moment. I really dug it. It reminded me of Francis Dunnery. If you haven't heard of him, and you sound like a big music fan, there are two albums that I can't recommend enough. Both of them are on Atlantic. He's not on Atlantic anymore, but I think it was in 1994 or 1995.
K2K: What style of music?
TH: It's all over the place. It's amazing. The two that you want to get is "Fearless" and "Tall Blonde Helicopter". "Fearless" is a masterpiece, I think. It's kind of like Peter Gabriel meets Sting meets the Beatles meets Pink Floyd. It's just incredible. Very pop, very well crafted and beautifully produced.
So anyway, he played me that riff and it was, "Oh, this is kind of cool." It reminded me of this Francis Dunnery kind of punk song that he had. I just started singing it, we started writing in our usual style and there it was.
K2K: "Because I Love You" sounds a bit like Zeppelin in the beginning, like "Kashmir".
TH: Really? I guess except for the beat is different.
K2K: I'm surprised at the swearing that you did in "No Guarantees".
TH: Oh, I've had comments about that. Somebody said, "It's not you." I thought, "Oh really? Have I met you? Do I know you?" What he meant was, what you meant, was that what you've heard of my music, it's not something that you can recognize. There's a "fucked up" on "Crashing Down", I think there's one little spot.
K2K: I think it's just that when someone listens to your other albums, you always seem so soulful and happy and on this one you've cut loose with this "Aw, fuck! I don't give a shit! I'm pissed!"
TH: You know something? If you listen to "Wide Awake" - happy. "No Such Thing" - happy. "Crashing Down" - thoughtful and hopeful. "Fantasia" - romantic. "The Whole You're In" - I'm pissed off.
K2K: I had read that that ["The Whole You're In"] had something to do with the band breaking up.
TH: No, not at all. That was another one where we needed one more song. It was the end of the sessions. We were sitting around watching "Leaving Las Vegas" and we all had hangovers, so it was really tough to watch. They got to the part where they got to this place called The Whole You're In. We had to write a song the next day and I said, "OK, guys. That's the title of the song we're doing tomorrow."
K2K: That's right. It wasn't you who told me that. I had read the rumor of the meaning from a website. It was supposedly about a song that you wrote about how you and Ronni had a big falling out.
TH: That is so untrue and so silly. The lyrics say, "Where you been, where you been, my little goddess". It's about a girl. I guess it's kind of funny how people listen to lyrics sometimes. That's a shame because I'm really proud of them on this album.
You were talking earlier about "Crashing Down" melodically and musically. I'm most proud of the lyrics on that song, I think, more than anything. Now on "No Guarantees", if you listen to the lyrics, the way I look at it is like this, a song encapsulates the moment. We all have to admit that, even if our steady mood from day to day is fairly happy and fairly up, that obviously there are moments or hours or certain specific days where you're just like, "Fuck." I don't know, I guess I just felt like at that particular moment there was this music sitting there in front of me and there you had it. I think it's one particular song and some people didn't like it. Some people like it a lot. I don't know why I was cursing on it, I really don't. I didn't do it to be cool. It was a punk song [though]. The original title for that song was "Snobbish Punk".
K2K: "Bits And Pieces" have fantastic backup vocals. Who is singing on that?
TH: That's a little girl in Norway. Somebody knew her. She's a woman, but she's a cute little girl. We were doing background vocals for a song that you haven't heard. It's on the Japanese album called "Free Again". It's a bonus track for Japan. It has this big, kind of "Hey Jude", outro at the end where everybody's singing. It's really cool. It's a really great song.
K2K: Is that available here as an import?
TH: Probably. Either that or on or one of those for a crazy amount of money. So a bunch of people came down and she was one of the people who came down. She had a great voice, so we approached her to do that one. It worked out OK. I had to work with her a little on her accent, but when she got it together it was alright.
(We then got on to talking about new musical trends and vocalists)
TH: It'll come back around, this whole thing. I think that Creed, to me, they're very popular right now, I think that they are the end of grunge, so to speak. I think that they [the record industry] were like, "OK. We'll let one more band be big that sounds like that sort of thing." I mean, I don't really know what it is. There is something, obviously, that people like about them.
K2K: That's because everyone wants to be angry.
TH: Well, I thought they were over that now. That kind of was the whole thing in the early 1990s. Oh, I guess it was more apathetic and depressed in the early '90s. Something's going to come back around with singing. It always does. The new Westworld thing that we're working on now (laughs) is probably going to revitalize my career in Japan in a huge way. I had no intentions of singing the way I did. It's turning out interesting. It's very high and not quite back to the old TNT, but getting there.
K2K: Do you prefer singing high?
TH: I don't care. Like I said, I prefer singing what sounds good for the song. Obviously I'm at a point where it's a hell of a lot easier for me not to sing high. If it fits the song, then I'll do my best to make it work. The Westworld thing is a retro band. It's meant to please to oldtimers.
K2K: What do you think of a lot of these bands of guys in their late 30s and 40s who were in the "hair bear" metal bands, coming back, in a way, and trying to recapture their old glory and yet not really maturing? There are a handful of bands that are trying to come off as the same sexy band that they were in their 20s.
TH: I don't think they think that. They can't possibly. I mean, there might be a few. There might be a couple that might be fantasizing about something, but I really think that most of them know exactly what they're doing. They all know that they're just juicing a bit of a revival thing that's going on. Probably what will happen is that there will be some young bands that will pick up elements of that sound and run with it. That's usually what happens. We're at the twenty year cycle now. What do I think of these guys? Look, I'm in my 30s. I think what you're saying is that they haven't gone anywhere.
And with that, we went on to talk about touring, critics' opinions and interviewers with their strange quirks and questions.
After talking with Tony, one gets the definite impression that he is not one to be resting on his laurels. He enjoys what he does and looks ahead to new projects. Undoubtedly we will all see Tony Harnell in some other new projects in the near future as well, so keep your ears and eyes open and don't forget to check out the latest offerings from both TNT and Westworld.
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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