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Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips catches up with Uriah Heep’s unflappable guitarist Mick Box for a chat about their latest album, the band’s long career and their upcoming tour of Australia.

Pioneering UK heavy rock band Uriah Heep are unquestionably  rock n’ roll legends. They have sold over 30 million records and have had five US Top 40 albums. They are also one of the hardest working outfits on the planet, even after forty five years on the road. Lead guitarist and the band’s only original member, Mick Box refers to his world as, “The never ending rock n roll circus”. Box had just returned home from the Russian leg of the tour the night before our chat and explained to me what was ahead of him. “We’ve got three days at home and then fly out to Florida and do a rock cruise through the Bahamas. We come back and start the USA tour  and then off to Australia and New Zealand, then home to a UK tour and the European festival circuit, so it is endless.”

Box had just offloaded that extensive tour itinerary to me after I’d enquired whether he ever had time to do anything apart from music when he gets home. “I’ve got a 14 year old boy and a wife,” he says.  “When I come back home, I take my rock ‘n’ roll hat off and I become husband and father. If I came home and said to my wife, I am going into the studio because I want to do a solo album, I’d get crucified!”

It seems the Russian public has a special place in their heart for Uriah Heep and vice versa. They were the first western rock band to ever play there as part of that country’s Glasnost policy of openness in the late eighties. “When you are taught at school about Russia, it’s not a place you think you’d ever visit'” says Mick. “Then to go there and play your music there and find out what a big part your music has been to some of their lives, it’s just amazing. To play to 180,000 people, you’re just thinking, wow where did this come from? All those years we’d been playing and writing and recording albums, over there they were buying it on the black market, spending two months wages just to buy your album. ”

Nudged to tell me the weirdest gig the band ever played, it’s an East German concert  rather than a Russian one which takes that cake. “I think a salt mine in East Germany, the Merkers Mine was the weirdest we ever played,” claims Mick. “We were so far underground. It took two hours to ferry the audience in and out in the lifts which is pretty bizarre. Everyone has to have a white hard hat on. When we walked on stage, it looked like we were playing to about a thousand boiled eggs until they relaxed and took them off. That was the salt mines in Merkers where supposedly Hitler hid  a lot of the gold and artworks and stuff like that. I hesitate to tell you that it was an acoustic show. If we’d have gone down there all guns blazing, we’d be buried alive.”

outsidercoverIn mid 2014, Uriah Heep released ‘Outsider’ another studio album to add to the band’s extensive catalogue. The album’s title was practical as opposed to meaningful suggests Box. “The song was written and we were looking for a title of the album,” he explains. “We were looking for a one word title and it was right before our very eyes. It’s a great title and very rock ‘n’ roll so we used that. But since using it, other people have put other connotations to it. Do you feel like an outsider? No, I don’t really! It’s one of those things that comes back and bites you on the bum mate.”

All Uriah Heep albums rock but Outsider is just that little bit edgier. It’s a tribute of sorts to their bass player Trevor Bolder, who died in May 2013. “We had to go into the studio and we really didn’t want to get fancy and progressive rock and all the rest of it,” explains Mick. “We wanted to make a statement of pure rock and I think it works pretty well on that level. It was just a feeling that we had, that we need to drive ourselves into that area. So far, so good, our fans have really liked it.”

Outsider was recorded ‘old school’, as a band, same room, same time. For Box, it couldn’t ever be any other way. “I think the essence of being in a band is that you do record as a band,” he says. “You do it all in one room like we did in the old days. You get the feeling of the band and that passion and energy comes across. I think once you do it piecemeal and start emailing files, you’ve lost the plot. It’s not what being in a band is all about. I think the test of that is the music of Zeppelin and Purple and Sabbath and Heep is still going strong and I think that is the reason why.”

Gear-wise, Mick doesn’t like things getting too complicated on stage either. As long as he has his signature model S4 Carparelli Les Paul-style guitar, a Marshall amp,  a decent quad box and a few essential pedals, he’s “flyin'”. “I don’t like putting too many processors in and compressors,” he says. “To me, it just screws up the sound of the guitar. It makes it very easy to play but doesn’t project, you don’t get the buzz from it. Also some people have so many pedals you think, is he a tap dancer or a guitarist? I just can’t do that. I like to go with the simplistic approach. I think more direct is more honest and it cuts to the chase.”

posterCurrently his pedalboard consists of a Cry Baby wah wah, a Chorus pedal and a Marshall Guv’nor pedal as the overdrive. He also stomps on a delay for one song. His strings are Rotosounds and he’s quite content with those. “Been with them a few years now and they have been excellent. They stay in tune, have good tone and do the job very well.”
Of course he’s head over heals with his own model Carparelli guitar. “They are fantastic guitars mate. You couldn’t get better, the workmanship is great. I know Mike Carparelli, the owner really well now and he has the same passion for making them as we have for playing them. It’s the perfect marriage. I play them all the time now, everywhere. They are my guitar of choice.”

Of all the guitarists in the world, Mick has the greatest admiration for Jeff Beck, another player who achieves his tone with pure talent as opposed to an abundance of gear.
“I just love what Jeff does,” he says. “He’s been a great player from The Yardbirds up. One of my favourite all time albums is Jeff Beck’s The Truth. That’s actually where I got the wah wah from. That spoke to me on that album and has been a part of me ever since. In fact I might even design shoes that have them built-in! (laughs) No, it’s great for me, helps the tone I get and the sustain. I use it in many, many ways other than just the wah function. It’s just a part of my sound now and thank goodness!”

Australian audiences will have the opportunity to hear Mick’s guitar tone with the band when they tour Australia from March 19th this year. Fans can expect a smattering of tunes from the new album but the set will mainly consist of Uriah Heep hits such as July Morning, Gypsy, Stealin’ and Free Me. “It will be a real musical journey through our career of 45 years,” says Mick proudly. “It’s a powerful set. I have family and friends down there. I lived in Sydney for ten years, so we’ll be having a lot of fun.”

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