Photos by Lynette Gillis
Sebastian Bach was my childhood hero, and his voice the soundtrack to my teens.
A shy and studious kid living in Halifax, I drew confidence from his powerful public persona as the statuesque lead singer for the New Jersey rock band Skid Row. In interviews and videos, he came off as funny, impulsive, authentic and completely gorgeous. (Stuck in isolated Halifax, I never got to see him perform live.)
On record, his huge pipes and emotional delivery took Skid Row songs to crazy highs and, for much of the early 90s, the top of the charts thanks to I Remember You, 18 & Life, Youth Gone Wild and Monkey Business. If I listened to their skull-crushing Slave to the Grind sophomore album before heading to school, I found myself walking across the schoolyard with a newfound hardness in my step. I cared less about what my classmates thought of me or if I got an answer wrong on a test.
My little sister, Lynette, felt the same way. An unbreakable bond formed between us based on our mutual love of rock 'n' roll. Soon I found myself asking for an electric guitar for Christmas. She got a set of drums. We got leather jackets. We started our own bands. We wrote songs, recorded them, went on tour. And though we sounded nothing like Skid Row, there's no denying that his influence changed the course of our lives.
It's fitting, then, that Lynette is with me on the day I interview Bach at the EMI offices in Liberty Village. Also fitting? We hear his oh so familiar voice before actually seeing him. He's down the hall, talking to his publicist, when his youthful, exuberant tenor reaches us. We go toward it like the devout toward their saviour.
And then there he is, towering over us, his 6'4" frame made taller by badass leather boots, blond hair springing from his shoulders and down his back. He shakes our hands, and hugs us when he sees our great excitement.
"Hey!" he exclaims. "So have you heard my new album?"
Bach's new album is, of course, the reason for all of this. Released today (Tuesday, September 27) through the Frontiers label, Kicking & Screaming is as hard-hitting a record as any he made with Skid Row, with whom he split in 1996, though perhaps a notch or two less overtly metal than 2007's Angel Down, his first full-length solo effort. Besides Bach's powerful vocals - which swoop and soar, growl and howl - it also stars the young Randy Rhoadsish guitar virtuoso Nick Sterling, who penned most of the tunes and lyrics.
"I made the album while running," Bach enthuses. "I love putting on my iPod and getting into that runner's high. I started listening to demos about two years ago, and I'd run and listen to them, thinking of ways to make them better. When we started making the album in February, I listened to it everyday when running. If I can get into it then, to me that's the sign of a good album. It gives you energy. Especially during the last part of a run when you don't think you can go any more. You'll hear some music and go, ‘Fuck this, man!' I know I'm done when I want to shake you by the collar and go, ‘You gotta hear this. I love it. I'm so into it.'"
"Music is an aggressive thing for you, isn't it?" I ask.
He pauses and looks at the ceiling. "My favourite kind of rock 'n' roll makes me feel really cool. I don't know how else to put it. A song like Tunnelvision or Kicking & Screaming. There's something about it that makes me feel cool, for lack of a better word. Like that riff in Tunnelvision."
He stops to hum it and play air guitar.
"It makes me feel like a bad motherfucker. Like I'm going out on a Friday night with my friends. I don't know. It's hard to talk about music. Music is in your brain and in your heart. David Lee Roth said one time that you can talk about how a song is really heavy or really dark and emotional and you could be talking about Black Sabbath or you could be talking about Wagner."
Bach grew up in Peterborough, Ontario, in an artistic family. His father is the late David Bierk, the Canadian landscape painter who founded the successful non-profit gallery Artspace. Bierk moved the family first from Freeport, Bahamas, and then to northern California before securing an art-teaching job in Peterborough in 1972, where they settled. I ask Bach what he learned from his father, who passed away from leukemia in 2002, about what it took to be a lifelong artist.
"My dad was the ultimate example. He picked something that he loved to do and did it. He loved to paint so he just painted. I saw that in him innately. It was all he ever talked about - painting pictures. He would come home and his arms were always caked with paint. I think that's what killed him. Those acrylics in the 70s. He was always covered in paint. That's all he talked about. I remember one night at dinner I went, "Dad, can we please talk about something other than art? Please?"
Bach preferred the visceral power of music to visual art.
"Before I was a singer," says Bach, "I was the class clown. I would make everybody laugh. But I was a weirdo because I was into heavy metal. In the 70s in Peterborough, you were one of the weird kids if you liked KISS and stuff. It was so much fun jumping around your bedroom with a tennis racket, playing air guitar. When you hear a song that you liked as a kid, like Chicago's" - he breaks into song: "Saturday! In the park! I think it was the fourth of July!" - "that just makes me feel like a little boy playing Frisbee in the sun. That doesn't happen when I watch a movie from the 70s. Music makes you feel more than anything else in the world. And it gave me so much strength."
Bach called on that strength during the dark time that followed his parents' divorce. Just 10 years old, he was sent away to Lakefield College School, an all-boys private school, where he lived in a dormitory room with five other boys. "I didn't have a choice," he says. "It was heavy. My parents getting divorced and then going right to the private school - it was shocking."
By then, though, he'd discovered that he could sing, thanks to his friend Dickson Davidson, who'd bribed him to join the church choir a few years earlier. (Bach animatedly tells the story in the video clip below.) One day while singing Rush in his dorm room, Bach garnered the interest of a couple of Grade 13 students, who asked him to join their band despite his young age. From there came a stint in Toronto's Kid Wikkid, which landed him a show at Larry's Hideaway when he was just 14.
"It was November 83," he recalls. "I wore so much makeup that I looked like a chick. The bar owner didn't know how old I was because I had on more makeup than Tammy Faye Baker. I've always been singing in bands. I never knew if I would make it. I thought I could, but I never knew."
When Kid Wikkid was unable to get a record deal in Canada, Bach headed to Detroit to join Madam X ("we didn't really have good songs") before scoring big with Skid Row, who definitely did.
"For a long time I was bitter that I couldn't get signed in Canada because I was from Canada. I had to move to the States to get signed and I didn't understand why. But I learned later in life that Canadian major labels don't really sign a lot of bands. They're more like outposts of the American company. It wasn't anything personal. Still, I could never understand why Haywire had a record deal."
Now 43, Bach has lived a fuller life than most. In the last decade he's tested reality show waters (Celebrity Fit Club, I Married... Sebastian Bach, SuperGroup, Celebrity Rap Superstar), had a reoccurring role on Gilmore Girls (and Trailer Park Boys, a show he loves), and played the lead in Broadway's Jekyll And Hyde and in the touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which he says improved the accuracy of his pitch and his ability to project his voice.
And then there's the last year alone, which saw him separate from Maria Bach, his wife of close to 20 years and mother of his three children, lose his long-time New Jersey family home to Hurricane Irene, and find new love with the L.A.-based model Minnie Gupta. (In the clip below, watch Bach discuss how his art has imitated his life in jaw-dropping ways. He also sings a few bars of Motley Crue's Home Sweet Home.)
And let's not forget the Bob Marlette-produced Kicking & Screaming, whose lyrics frequently reference or allude to dreams. Chasing dreams. Caught In A Dream. Trapped In A Dream. Dream Forever. Final song Wishin' is a bittersweet ballad he dedicated to his three children in the album's liner notes.
So, despite his success, does Bach still feel like he's fighting to make his dreams come true?
"There is one real dream that I have and that's to go on tour as a solo artist the way I could with Skid Row. Everyone is asking me when I'm playing here and I say, ‘I'll fucking play here anytime.' But a lot of the promoters are so into this reunion tour stuff. They'd rather have a band with the name even if it doesn't include the original members. And everyone just goes and waves their beer in the air. That's just not me. Not me at all. I'm more into the content of what I'm doing than the form of it.
"I'm always dangled this carrot, like, ‘If you get back with the old band, we'll give you this.' And it's like, I'm not getting back with the fucking old band. Maybe I will someday but it's not happening now.' Ozzy was able to become Ozzy after he left Black Sabbath. I can still tour but the promoters are just so into this fucking reunion thing. So I fight against that all the time."
As the interview wraps, I pull out a letter that I wrote Bach when I was 15 but was too shy to mail. In it, I tell him what an inspiration he is to me and how I'll be meeting him soon because my sister and I have a band and we're going to make it. Seeing him read it in front of Lynette and me 20 years after the fact is nothing short of surreal. Magical, even. Significant, definitely. The 15-year-old big dreamer awakens inside of me. Bach carefully folds the letter and puts it into his pocket. Hugs and high-fives ensue.
As Lynette and I descend the elevator, so elated that we are certain we've left behind important equipment, I think about how life rarely unfolds the way you expect it to. How circumstances change, how loved ones come and go, how life throws and will continue to throw unexpected curveballs. We didn't end up playing Madison Square Garden. Bach's marriage, like his parents', didn't last forever. Old things are washed away. New things are found. And sometimes you end up in exactly the place you wanted to, a little worse for wear but with your dreams still intact.