Interview 5-30-2023

Interview with Mike Lopez by Rebecca Cullen

Back on the scene with a soaring new rock album of conceptual and stylistic peaks – the founder and front-man of Colorado’s Lion Drome, Mike Lopez, kindly took part in an interview.

We dig into the stories behind the music and the band’s first appearance, as well as plans for the future and some unheard gems from behind the scene. Here’s the conversation in full.

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Hi Mike, thanks so much for the interview – and huge congrats for the brilliant new album! For those new to the Lion Drome realm, what inspired the act’s formation and debut back in 2014? 

It was time for a reinvention of musical focus. I had spent the previous nearly ten years with a band I formed called GasHead, and that came to an end.

It started out as a heavy instrumental four-piece, which gained a small level of notoriety with two CD releases and then became a more prominent band when we added a singer and put on our own version of what we thought modern thrash metal should sound like. Our 2007 release, The Isolationist, received a fair amount of praise. We would later work with original Megadeth lead guitarist, Chris Poland on a single.

When that succumbed to several logistical challenges, I left myself open to other artistic expressions. I’ve always had many musical outlets and associated releases so it was natural to adapt and clear the slate, so to speak.  

The first songs that came together were very Jeff Buckley inspired. A lot of moody material. But I moved past that after a good run of writing and started incorporating my love of eighties hard rock (mostly guitar driven elements) and new wave (mostly synthesizer sounds…i.e. The Cars and Duran Duran). This emerging hybrid of 90’s alternative rock and eighties sounds captured my imagination and I started to run with it and widen the scope of my songwriting.  

I really hit a special outpouring of material around this 2012-2015 period. I’ll likely have some strong “old” material to go back to for a couple more albums, I’d guess.

The name refers to the Wall Of Death feature often uniting hard rock and motorcycles in real-time – something I have fond memories of seeing as a kid (ours is a Harley Davidson-obsessed Dad). What was it about this that first impressed or connected with you?

I was online, and browsing interesting articles on the humor site and came across an article about these features at traveling carnivals in the 1930’s called the Wall of Death / Lion Drome. I was fascinated, looking at these old black and white photos of motorcycle riders with giant cats – usually a lion – sitting in the side car next to them as they zoomed around this wall-like track.

“It’s always hard coming up with a good name for a band or musical endeavor & I was drawn to using “Lion Drome” for both its unlikeliness to be used & also what it could communicate about what I wanted to put out musically.”

To me it suggested an unexpected and attractive combination of entertainment, or in my world, combination of styles and influences. 

So it stuck, but it usually does require some explanation. More than once, I’ll get people assuming it’s Lion “Dome” and it’s got to be some sort of rock formation. Ha ha!

Genre-wise you touch on a lot of influences and styles. How would you describe the sound of the new album, and which track from the playlist do you think best represents that overall?

Lion Drome is a hybrid or fusion of guitar focused eighties rock, synth-heavy new wave details and nineties alternative (more in subject matter and tone). 

Perhaps the most important factor running through most songs is the inclusion of some element of epic-ness or drama. Although I love my eighties guitar heroes and bands, I’m not really programmed for too much of the party themes and vapid rehashes. I’ve always been pretty proud of my lyrical content and in fact got quite a bit of praise in the thrash band for it.  

As for what represents this album the best, if you judged on what other listeners have gravitated to, it has been such a wide variety, which is honestly very gratifying. You’d think that something like Here and Gone, which is one of the most obvious “singles” would tip the scales but no, it’s so incredibly varied.  

SOL-2208 and Parallel Construction are two proud moments because I’m taken aback sometimes that such deep material came out of me. And then for some reason, I always really look forward to hearing Greatest Generation when I play the album. 

Summing it down to one is super tough. I actually think the one song so far that covers the most Lion Drome ingredients is from our 2014 release, a song called Winter (shred mix).  Having said that, this new self-titled release, with its more edgy tone, is superior and I think, a treasure of a lot of expressions. To each, their own.

What comes first in the creative process, concept or musicality? 

Almost always, it’s writing a riff or a chord sequence. If it catches my ear, I play it in my head pretty regularly. It becomes a bit of a loop in my head and then my brain starts adding things like vocal melodies, lyric chunks, other instrumentation. 

If I’ve got a good start on most of those, I will draft an early demo. From there, it’s an exercise in building and refining to the point it looks like a good bet to get recorded.

Why did you choose to explore the topics of SOL 2208, and how do you generally decide what to write about?

SOL 2208, I’m sure just came from a love of science fiction. It reimagines what lead to the loss of communication with the Mars rover, Spirit, ten years ago or so. 

My imagination and too many sci-fi flicks helped me craft a story where the planet Mars is sentient enough to understand that it may be colonized one day by these visitors. As a defensive response, it uses the communication link between the rover and home to locate Earth and it sets about a collision path to us. It would rather die than be colonized.  

“The cool thing about the lyrics is that it’s from the perspective of the rover, which is shocked by the unnatural things it is witnessing on Mars & helpless to do anything but manage a short distorted warning.”

I think an exciting and/or underused perspective drives my lyrical directions. SOL 2208 is a bit of a subject matter outlier but even the male-female relationship songs have something pointedly tender or heartbreaking in a colorful way, that gives me some writer’s satisfaction.

Which song means the most to you personally, and why?

Parallel Construction is the most personal. It covers a painful time of being a father to my teenage daughter, who was a bright, beautiful person but with a lot of directional issues she had at the time. A “parallel construction” is loosely defined as an alternate reality built up to be reality for other’s consumption. In other words, she created layers of lies upon lies that were exhausting to cut through and get to the truth. 

The song is about reaching that point of exhaustion as a father who just wants to protect, love and redirect as best he knows how. It was a piece of music I held on to for several years as I wanted it to be treated with the upmost effort. I remember telling Mark Foerster, my bass player, to pick up his fretless bass and come up with a mournful bass line. That performance is one of my favorite on the whole recording. My daughter today, is a new mother with a beautiful little girl, wonderful future husband and amazing life-gifts spanning career and relationships. That “happy ending” aside, it’s still really important to seize and write about those periods, even if they pass. That’s why I choose Parallel Construction.

Why did you choose these two covers specifically to round up the project?  

Eyes Without a Face was just a fun pick where I got to sing a little lower in spots. We recorded it back in 2016, I believe as the b-side to an early version of Hear and Gone as a single. I think Billy Idol is a little under-appreciated so I was happy to shine a little light there.  

As for Sunglasses at Night, perhaps a bit more random. During COVID, I sat at home and recorded something like 35-40 cover songs and Sunglasses at Night was one of them. I always thought that the keyboard riff in that song was heavier than most realized…like a degree off of Fear of the Dark from Iron Maiden or something. So I heavied it up a bit and we used my home demo and mixed it in the studio for the record.  

The record would have been just fine without the covers but including them does underline the source of a lot our Lion Drome ingredients. It wouldn’t be unexpected to see more eighties covers pop up from here on out.

Are live shows a big part of your plans?

They aren’t at the moment but I would be receptive to be pushed back in that direction with the right supportive elements. In other words, I’ve been focusing a lot of $ on recording, promotion and even some label connections that there isn’t anything left to go to rehearsal spaces and hiring of musicians, who could commit to a schedule and deliver the music at a super high level. 

Certainly, the musicians who record with me now would fit in the performance category but it’s not a conversation we have broached. Beyond them, I’d want an incredible guitarist who could learn all my rhythm stuff and free me up to focus on vocals and more auxiliary guitar duties.  

Finally, a killer synth player with all the sounds would be in order. Perhaps if one of the label things happens, there would be more momentum to come back the live stage.  It’s all about lining up what is possible and what makes sense, after all, Lion Drome is pretty much myself with contributors and the bottom line starts here.

Who would you collaborate with if you could choose anyone at all, past or present, and why? 

I’ll give you one dream answer and one more specific song answer that I’d really consider trying to make happen.  

Dream answer: to work with Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde.  I had a band called Eve’s Drop in the late 90’s/early 2000’s that was based a bit on Concrete Blonde. I loved her and the guitar player, James Mankey. Both are a couple of my favorite musicians. I think I could play James’ part for a day and come up with something cool with her.

Secondly, I’ve been sitting on a song called Lost Along the Way which just screams Miles Kennedy (Alter Bridge, Slash) on vocals. Not sure how much would cost me but I’d do it in a heartbeat. 

What’s something about you or this project that audiences might be surprised to hear? 

A couple personal tidbits:

1. My wife and I met on a photo shoot for an Eve’s Drop CD.

2. I won a contest in 2011 to play on stage with my first guitar hero, George Lynch and

3. At least locally, my son, who is a high functioning Downs kid, is way more popular than me as a musician. He stars in a video called Ghost by a band called Valdez. They showed the video on the arena screens to start his high school graduation last weekend. I may never catch up to him! Check out the video. It’s pretty uplifting.

Is there anything else we should know? 

Yeah, 2023 is the year of recording singles so far. I imagine they would eventually form the makings of the next album. In January, I released a song call Black Light Cobra, which is a bit of a mini-epic at 7 minutes long. It is one of the coolest things I’ve done, spanning a lot of melodic content, rocking with enthusiasm and paying tribute to some 27 musical artists or specific songs in the lyrics. It also has a pretty shreddy version of U2’s I Will Follow as the b-side. And yes, that was another COVID era cover getting used.

Following that up are two singles we are about to enter the studio with in Hero Down and Star 5280.  Basically, I’m recording those to possibly move forward some label relationships, first and foremost, but who knows what seeds they will ultimately plant. There still is no ring on this finger, so to speak. ;)

Top 11-23-2022 Interview

Lion Drome and the Self Titled Release

Q: Can you talk about the history of Lion Drome

A: Lion Drome came about like several other periods in my musical endeavors (which date back to 1994), as a reinvention or re-direction following the end of one group or project. In this case, my long-time band GasHead, which was a relatively successful thrash metal band, ran into some logistical challenges to keep going and folded in 2011 or so after nearly 10 years.  

I found myself really deep-diving into Jeff Buckley at this point and started demoing ideas at home along those lines. Now I had never been a lead singer before, just a guitar player, but I was always confident enough to sing my vocal melody ideas to the vocalists in previous groups. After looking at the batch of songs I had going, two things evolved in my mind: 1. I should really be the one singing these songs instead of looking for someone, and 2. I needed to go way beyond the Buckley inspired direction and welcome in a hybrid of poppier modern/alt-rock as well as guitar focused hard rock elements. It was this nice wide berth of sound where I could tap new wave synth stuff (Duran Duran, the Cars), the introspective Buckley side and a real desire to constantly pursue “epic” type moments that you could find in artists like U2, Porcupine Tree and hard rock from the eighties. Hence, the Jeff Buckley roots of the project really took a back seat, relegated to bubbling underneath slightly.

That led to the 2014 release of Curve of the Earth, the Lion Drome debut. For some star power, I had Chris Poland play a 90-second outro solo on an alternate version of the title track. Chris gained fame as the original lead guitarist in the legendary metal band, Megadeth for their first two records. Since leaving that band he had developed a stellar reputation as a fusion instrumentalist with his band Ohm. I had worked with him once before in a GasHead song.

To support the release, I formed a gigging group and we played perhaps eight-ten shows before we lost the drummer and Lion Drome fizzled out for a few years. We also started recording some follow up material which would be revived and finished up many years later…and I guess we are getting to that now…

Q: What inspired you to make your self-titled release Lion Drone? And is there any meaning behind the name? How was your sound changed since your 2014 Curve of the Earth?

A: In the intervening years (2015-2020) I kept sort of busy just entertaining myself by recording covers at home and other COVID-banishment activities like finally officially releasing tracks from my mid-nineties band Nil (Zero! Nada! Bupkis! – the title, if you are looking) and a one-off ’80s hard rock single with my old GasHead drummer called “F16 With a Vanity Mirror.” My producer asked me what was next, and I said that I think Lion Drome should come back, write some new material and finish what we had abandoned. He got a bit excited and definitely agreed. In 2021, we started the whole machine up again and hit the studio. It’s a mix of contributing musicians but all great players I’ve used before over the years. The chemistry and playing was inspiring with bassist Mark Foerster, drummers Kenny James and Jerry Bousquet plus the musical ideas from producer Dave Beegle; they all really helped it blossom beyond what I put into it.

I kicked around some other album titles but I went with our namesake because I think when you do that, you are really laying down the gauntlet that this is a defining representation. It did go further than the debut in “mining the epic” and it was a much edgier release, whereas Curve was a bit more polite.

As for our name, the Lion Drome / Wall of Death was a featured attraction of traveling carnivals in America in the 1930’s. Basically, it was a round, bowl-like track (think of a cyclist’s velodrome) where motor cars or motorcycles would go round and round with the addition of a giant cat (often a lion) sitting in the side car next to them. The crowd would overlook below from the top. I thought it was a good interpretation of what I wanted to do musically – be a hybrid of genres and influences that would fuse together unexpectedly but attractively and with wide-ranging possibilities.

Q: Can you talk about some of the themes on the album?

A: “Here and Gone” is pretty simple. Guy meets a gorgeous girl at a club and hits it off only to find out later, she’s a bit of a social butterfly, thriving on the attention of several other admirers. The brain has an internal war with the heart about letting her go versus thinking it might work out at the end of the night.

From there, the themes have a lot more on the line, you could say.

SOL 2802 is a fairly terrifying premise. It reimagines why we lost contact with the Spirit Mars rover in 2010. The rover comes across a rock outcrop and witnesses the boulders moving along the ground in very distinct patterns. This very unnatural and unexplainable event causes the rover to experience a stress-induced electronic heart attack of sorts and it can only manage a distorted message or warning back to Earth. What the rocks have done is mimic the same patterns made by the Sailing Stones in Death Valley and once done, a very sentient Mars locks onto the location of Earth, bent on colliding with it as a defense mechanism. It would rather die than to be colonized by foreign entities.

“Fashion Blind” is a criticism of the increasing creep of White Supremacy into American politics mainstream media.“Parallel Construction” is about reaching a finality of dealing with someone else’s deep web of lies and ending the chances to be given.“That Bird Don’t Fly ‘Round Here No More (reprise) is a more dressed up version of the same song from Curve of the Earth. It follows two people who have a very passionate love affair but it quickly extinguishes at the moment of a simple conflict or issue. One of them would rather move on than put any work into being together. They are only in it for the romantic aspects void of any reality checks.

“Lips of Faith” honors the spouses of our soldiers who serve our country and the job they do keeping the family going at home, especially during times of conflict and deployment.

Somewhat along these lines is “Greatest Generation,” a tale about an alcoholic Vietnam vet who is upset about how history remembers his service compared to WW2 vets. It also borrows a bit of personal experience as my parents went to high school with a guy who went to Vietnam and came back with awful PTSD. He would wake his wife and kids up in the middle of the night, putting his hand over their mouths and have them quietly crawl on their bellies through the house as he relived his own jungle nightmares.

Finally, I had two eighties covers close out the album; Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face”and Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at night.” The theme here being a call back to some of the stylistic influences coursing through the songs.

Q: What is your creative process like? 

A: I think like many artists, it starts with a kernel - usually a riff or chord series that seems like a musical section. I let that percolate in my head for a few days and I start to fill in the gaps to make it a song. It’s a very easy process for me but one key is that I always have to have something about it that satisfies and appeals to the guitarist in me. It’s not very often that I progress with a song without that factor but it has happened. Usually because the gaps I start filling in my head are very cinematic ones where the layering and production ideas come fast and furious and I’m gung-ho for the song for those reasons.

Q: What was your recording process like? And has it changed over the years? It seems like you use a lot of synths. Would you explain some of the tools you use?

A: The recording process has been the same since I got an iPad around 2010. I write demos using the DAW program Auria on the iPad, complete with a stand-in programmed drum track or click. I give the demo to the bass player and drummer and send the individual tracks digitally with DropBox to my producer and he pulls those tracks into ProTools for mixing and recording further. Eventually, the bassist and drummer get in the studio and record to those guide tracks. Many times, some of the guide tracks end up as keepers. Performances that weren’t as good - my synths, guitars and vocals, will get redone in the studio or I’ll give them another go at home. It’s very efficient. As far as keyboards and synths, I often plug in a pretty old and cheap Casio for pad stuff or maybe an electric piano sound. More sophisticated, interesting and edgy sounds come from an Auria plug-in called Magellan. I don’t use guitar amp simulators though. I mic up either my Marshall Valvestate combo or my Vox AC15 with an SM-57 for most guitar tracks.

Q:  How do you usually go about writing lyrics?

A: Following the song writing formula above, I replay the music in my head or audibly with a scratch demo many times while driving or doing work around the house. Eventually, phrases start to emerge with melodies and a subject matter construct takes shape. When I’m in writing mode, I sleep very poorly. My mind doesn’t shut off and the ideas become deeply embedded earworms.

Q: What else should we know about your music?

A: I’m back in the studio with Lion Drome at the moment, recording a stand-alone single called “Black Light Cobra,” hopefully in time for Christmas. As a B-side, I’ll be including one of the many covers I recorded during COVID, a shreddy take on U2’s “I will Follow.”  This rather long (seven minute) piece of music came to me right after releasing the self-titled album in September and it kept me up many nights as this earworm that would constantly tap me on the shoulder.  I figured the only way to exorcise it was to record it. I have a feeling it will be one of the most special songs I’ve recorded – Lion Drome or otherwise.  The title is a reference to black light posters that were popular in young people’s bedrooms in the 1970’s. The lyrics are made up of song or album titles of music that I have really loved over the years. From Meg Myers to Testament; it’s name-checking some 27 artists. Its one big celebration of the discovery of new music and diving deep into it -the black light cobra poster being a symbolic witness to that. Its self-reflexive in a way because here is this piece of music that wouldn’t leave me alone that points to songs/ albums or artists in general that I’ve played over and over. 

​Best places to follow Lion Drome are probably our EPK and Facebook.  We have Reverbnation as well but I’m not happy with having to use downgraded MP3s on the site. They both are connected to our Bandcamp site, where you can stream high quality and order physical product. Of course we are out there on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora etc…