Stevie D. is a long way from California when he calls in to Guitar Player one afternoon in February. In fact, the guitarist is backstage at a club in Nottingham, England, about 130 miles north of London, where he’s getting ready to take the stage with Buckcherry for the latest stop on their current European tour. After tonight, it’s on to Germany, Switzerland and Italy. From there, he’ll be crisscrossing the globe pretty much nonstop for the remainder of 2019.
“Immediately after this run, we’re home for a few days, and then we’re out on the road in the U.S. through the summer,” Stevie says. “Then we head back to Europe for some festivals, and after that it’s back to the States for more dates. By the end of the year I believe we’ll be in Japan and Australia and all those regions.”
The reason for all this activity is the new Buckcherry album, Warpaint (Century Media), their first record in four years and seventh full-length overall. As should be expected, Warpaint fully delivers on the sort of high-octane, punk-and-glam-spackled riff-rock the L.A.-based band has been perfecting over its now 20-year recording career. But there’s also a reinvigorated energy and kick to these new tunes, not least of all due to the fact that Warpaint is Buckcherry’s first record since a shakeup that saw co-founding guitarist Keith Nelson depart the band in 2017. In his absence, Stevie D. — who joined in 2005, prior to their third (and best-selling) album, 15 — has assumed the role of primary guitarist and co-songwriter alongside co-founding vocalist Josh Todd.
“I was up for the challenge,” Stevie says. “And it was definitely a challenge. But I feel that Josh and I rose to the occasion successfully.”
Of course, Warpaint is hardly the first time Stevie D. and Todd have worked together so closely. In addition to writing on previous Buckcherry albums, the two have collaborated on several projects outside of the band over the past years. Among them is their electronic-and-rap-influenced duo, Spraygun War, which released a 2016 EP, Into the Blackness, and the more punkish hard rock outfit Josh Todd & the Conflict, which issued the album Year of the Tiger in 2017.
It was during the making of Year of the Tiger that the seeds of Warpaint were planted. “Buckcherry had come off the road and Josh and I felt like we wanted to keep working,” Stevie D. explains. “So we created another group, which was the Conflict, and we started writing songs that explored the heavier side of what we do.” But, he adds, “at the same time, you can’t help but write rock and roll tunes, you know what I mean? So any time one of those rock and roll tunes would come up, we would set it aside and say, ‘Well, we’ll revisit that later.’ Eventually, we had accumulated 40 or so of those songs, and that got whittled down to 20, and then to 11. And that was Warpaint.”
Fast-forward to 2019 and, in addition to releasing the new record, Buckcherry have signed on to a different label, Century Media, and now boast a revised lineup that includes new members Kevin Roentgen on guitar and Francis Ruiz on drums, along with returning bassist Kelly LeMieux.
Warpaint, meanwhile, is among the deepest, most diverse and hardest-rocking records of the band’s career. It cycles through straight-ahead, barnburners (“Warpaint,” “Bent” and “The Devils in the Details”), moody modern-sounding fare (“Vacuum” and the groove-heavy “Right Now”), super-melodic country-inflected ballads (“The Hunger” and “Radio Song”) punkabilly rave-ups (“No Regrets”) and even a suprise left-field cover of Nine Inch Nails’ 1990s alt-rock anthem “Head Like a Hole.”
“We wanted to have a well-rounded record,” Stevie explains, “but at the same time still have a cohesive and consistent sound. Because it’s important to keep that rock and roll spirit and heart.”
Perhaps it’s more important than ever, given that rock holds a less prominent place on the music landscape than at maybe any time since its beginning. “Right around 2005, rock bands stopped going Platinum,” Stevie acknowledges. “I think we were one of the last ones [with 15]. But it’s just not happening anymore.
“The rock game is definitely changing, and it can be difficult sometimes. But that said, we’re more than happy to be out there carrying the torch.”
This is the first Buckcherry record not to feature co-founding guitarist Keith Nelson. With his exit, you’re now the “elder statesman” guitarist. Did your role in the band change at all?
Yes, absolutely. I went from being “the other guitar player” to being Josh’s songwriting partner. And there are a lot of other responsibilities beyond the music. Now I have to think about who’s in the crew, how we’re traveling — all the bits and bobs that you’re not concerned about when you’re just playing guitar. But the songwriting aspect was definitely a big part of the shift.
How did you approach Warpaint from a songwriting perspective?
I’ve always been very aware of what the Buckcherry sound is, but I also wanted to stretch out a little bit within the realm of what makes Buckcherry sound like Buckcherry. I mean, it’s fairly easy to write something like the title track. At least it is for us. But then there’s also a song like “No Regrets,” which is our Orange County punk song. But in both cases it’s still Josh’s voice out front, and if Josh is singing on it, it’s going to sound like Buckcherry.
So I didn’t put too many constraints on the songwriting process, like, “We have to sound like this.” I just wrote. And when you’re doing that, sometimes you hit roadblocks. But the only way to get around that or through it is by just writing something, anything, in any direction. So the goal was to keep it fresh, keep it new, and also to listen to a lot of different kinds of music in order to stay inspired.
After self-producing the last few records, the band opted to work with Mike Plotnikoff this time. Why?
One reason is that we had our biggest success with Mike, with the 15 album. Another thing is that Mike has been part of the rock landscape for a while now. A lot of people don’t realize it, but he’s produced a lot of the rock records that you’ve been hearing for the past 10 years [Plotnikoff has worked with Halestorm, Papa Roach and All That Remains, among others]. And one of the things that we decided when we were writing this record was that we wanted to be on radio again, but without sacrificing or compromising what we feel Buckcherry is. So we went with Mike because we felt he would be able to do that for us.
That’s interesting to hear you say you wanted to “be on radio again.” How does that benefit a band like Buckcherry in this day and age?
Well, there’s clearly no money on that side of things anymore, in terms of spins and record sales. At least not for rock bands. But radio is still a way to promote your band. And from there, people might go spin your music on Spotify, iTunes or Deezer, or whatever other music outlet they use. And then they might come out to see the shows. Radio is like the loss leader, in a way.
Has it worked? Have you noticed a different sort of reaction to this record as opposed to the last couple?
We’ve definitely had a bigger response to the new songs than anything we’ve put out in a while. But another thing is that we made and released the last couple of records independently. This time around we’re back with a major [Century Media’s parent company is Sony]. So we’ve got a lot more exposure out there. Is it because of the music? Is it because of the machine behind us? You know, it’s probably both of those things.
Let’s talk gear for a little bit.
Yes! Gear! [laughs] Love the gear. True to Buckcherry fashion, we used a lot of vintage guitars and vintage amps on this record. Mike and I picked a couple of amps that basically became the foundation for the tracks, and those were a 100-watt ’72 Marshall Major and an older 100-watt Marshall JMP. Both Kevin and I used those amps. And then we’d also layer in a newer-school amp on top of that for either of us, which would be either a Bogner Ecstasy or an Orange Rockerverb MKIII. Also, Mike is Canadian, and he loves this Canadian amp company named Wizard, so we used a bunch of their amps as well.
How about guitars?
Kevin’s main guitar was a Gibson ES-335 reissue. For me it was a ’59 reissue Les Paul sunburst. Then we had vintage Juniors, ’60s Teles, ’60s Strats — all of that kind of stuff, which we used for bells and whistles. And, of course, I had my Sully guitars. I used my custom-made ’71 Trella for a lot of my solos.
How about pedals?
One of my main ones was the Steve Stevens signature pedal [the J. Rockett Rockaway Archer]. It’s basically a Klon with a graphic EQ. Steve sent me one, and I tried it the first day in the studio and wound up using it on about half of my solos. Then I also had a DLS RotoSIM and several different Dunlop wahs. That was the main stuff. But for the rhythm tones, it’s mostly all direct, just plugging straight into the amp and blasting away.
You’re clearly a big vintage guy, and vintage gear was also something that Keith Nelson was serious about during his years with Buckcherry. Did you two connect through that when you first joined the band?
Keith was the guy who really introduced me to the vintage world. I didn’t have a lot of money before I joined Buckcherry. I didn’t have any money. But then we were pretty successful on that 15 album, and through Keith I would meet these collectors. And there’s some key guys in that game. There’s a network, and it’s a small, small group of people that all know each other. He introduced me to those guys, and he taught me about what makes certain guitars collectible and why. During that time I owned a ’57 Black Beauty, a ’60 Black Beauty, a ’61 SG, a ’64 SG, a ’68 Les Paul and ’60s Strats. I also had an amp rig that was so big, I didn’t know how to turn it on. But then somewhere along the way — I would say just before the Josh Todd & the Conflict record [Year of the Tiger] — I decided to make things simple again. So I had just a couple of guitars and a half-stack and a small pedalboard. I got back to basics and made it more about what I could get out of my hands.
When you did Year of the Tiger, your gear was entirely different from what you use when you play in Buckcherry. For example, your main guitar was a Norlin-era Les Paul.
It was. And then my main amp was my signature head, the Carol-Ann SD, which was also on this album for the new-school–style sounds.
How necessary is it to differentiate the gear that you use in each project? Do you think the slight changes in tone or attack really translate all that much to the listener?
In all honesty? At the volumes we play at, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Vintage gear, PAF pickups… as much as I love to own that stuff, I admit that when I’m up there onstage, the only one that knows or cares about the fact that my guitar is a ’50s Les Paul is me. [laughs] Everyone else in the venue doesn’t really know.
But as much as I hate to admit that, I can still go down the rabbit hole of vintage gear and not come out of it for 10 years. Because I love it. But I had to sell a lot of that stuff because, you know, we had stopped touring, I went through a divorce, I had a son — all these different things. And it was hard to see it go, but once I got free of it and really got to thinking about what role it plays in my life… You know, the gear is fun, but it’s not everything.
It’s also about what works for you. You once talked about meeting Angus Young and coming to the realization that his Gibson SG is nothing special, beyond the fact that it’s his SG.
Yeah, exactly. When I met Angus, he wasn’t even quite sure of the year of his guitar. And the headstock had been broken a few times, and there were other repairs. It was a complete refin. It’s not like it was a ’64 SG, or a ’61 “Les Paul” SG. I think it was a ’68 — just an unremarkable Norlin-era model. But it works for him.
There’s clearly a prominent AC/DC influence in the Buckcherry sound. Though one thing that’s interesting is people seem to most closely associate you guys with a sort of ’80s Sunset Strip aesthetic, even though, in reality, you’re actually a 2000-era band.
Well it’s no secret that we’re heavily influenced by classic guitar rock from the ’70s, and even some from the ’80s. But as a band we saw the most success from, you know, 2005 through 2010, maybe 2012. I think a lot of the ’80s comparisons happen because we’re a rock band from Hollywood. It’s an easy way for people to pigeonhole you. But we were coming out at a time when there was no one else doing this. And really, there’s still no other real rock and roll bands out there. You know, there’s the Struts and Greta Van Fleet But there’s really not too much else.
Given that fact, what would you say to a kid who wants to create music that’s clearly influenced by classic rock and roll?
Run! [laughs] No, I would say just be great at what you do. Make it about the playing. Make it about songwriting. Make it about the performing. Because it’s not just about how well you’re going to play in your bedroom. Go back and listen to all the legends, and also play with a lot of different artists — and not just rock artists. But mostly it’s about songs. If you want to do this for a living, write good songs, and write a lot of them. Do it a million times and find out what makes something great. And then make it your own.