“There was a time when, if you said something ’rocks,‘ it meant something,” laments Rev. James A. Rota II, guitarist and lead singer of Fireball Ministry. “Today, it’s like, ‘My mom rocks!’ or ‘Big Macs rock!’ C‘mon, dude — parents don’t rock. Sandwiches don‘t fuckin’ rock. ACDC fuckin‘ rocks!”
Fireball Ministry fuckin’ rocks as well. Just ask anyone who caught ‘em on their recent tour with stoner gods Spirit Caravan, or anyone who’s heard their CDs — 1999‘s Ou Est la Rock? and the new FMEP, which throws in three riff-o-riffic originals with five lovingly rendered covers ranging from Blue Cheer’s “Fortunes” to the Misfits‘ “CoughCool.” The Fireball Ministry sound is dry, heavy and stripped-down, brutal enough to match modern metal mutants like Queens of the Stone Age and Machine Head, but sufficiently song oriented to click with anyone enamored of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden or any other classic hard-rock band you’d care to name. “We‘re not reinventing any wheels,” Rota shrugs. “We’re just paying homage to the things we thought were cool.”
“It totally depresses me that ACDC and the Scorpions are now considered to be, like, ‘kitschy cool,’” says guitarist Emily J. Burton of some of her heroes. “All these shops on Melrose desecrating their T-shirts with rhinestones . . .”
“Or, like, people joke about Rob Halford of Judas Priest riding a motorcycle onstage,” adds Rota. “That‘s not to be laughed at — that’s insanely rad.”
“I don‘t see Linkin Park riding a motorcycle out onstage,” sniffs Burton.
Kindred souls from the respective rock & roll wastelands of Indiana and New Jersey, Burton and Rota met several years ago in Cincinnati and quickly started writing songs together. Burton had never been in a band before, while Rota was never entirely happy with any of his previous musical endeavors. “I had been in various bands where the mindset was that you had to try to do something different, you have to be throwing in some kind of stylistic movement to shake things up,” says Rota. “It wasn’t until I started writing songs with Emily that I realized, if you stay true to what you know — ‘This is the kind of music I like, so this is the kind of music I’m gonna write‘ — you sound much more legitimate.”
The duo soon moved to New York, but had difficulty finding like-minded collaborators. So, in the fall of 1998, they decided to relocate to L.A. “We kind of had the idea for the band before we had anything else,” says Rota. “Then we started writing songs and recording them, and we were like, ’People might like this!‘ But in New York, at that time especially, there wasn’t a lot of rock stuff happening. Even in finding people to play this kind of music, the well was pretty dry. It always seemed like there was rock happening in L.A., whether or not anybody was actually paying attention.”
Sure enough, the change of scenery worked: Within three months of arriving in L.A., Fireball Ministry inked a one-album deal with Bong Load Records. (FMEP was released by Small Stone, a Detroit-based indie.) Now, after undergoing several upheavals, the Fireball Ministry rhythm section seems to have finally solidified, with John Oreshnick on drums and Janis Tanaka on bass. “In hard rock, women onstage tend to not be taken as seriously as guys,” says Rota. “But I would put Emily or Janis up against any dude, any day of the week, as far as heavy metal legitimacy goes. The women in our band rock fuckin‘ 50,000 times harder than half the bands we play with!”
Rota presently makes his living as a video editor, while Burton pays the bills with computer-graphic design. But with the band boasting a growing congregation of fans sickened by the current glut of sports-metal and therapy-rock outfits, Fireball Ministry might soon become a professional proposition.
“It’s a good time,” Rota says of the band‘s appeal. “We take it seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously — that‘s the bottom line. We’re not here to tell anybody what to do, or tell everybody about our sadness and misery and the sad state of the world. Not that we‘re necessarily a great band, but we’re doing what all the great bands did. They took what they heard before and were just like, ‘This is my take on the situation.’”
“Rock has been around long enough that there have been tons of examples to learn from,” says Burton.
“Yeah, you throw on the first four or five Alice Cooper albums,” says Rota, “or the first few Grand Funk Railroad records, and they still really hold up today.”
“But then you see those ‘80s clips of Alice Cooper with Kane Roberts in the band,” says Burton, “and you go, ’Okay, that was a bad idea!‘”
“Note to self,” laughs Rota. “No machine-gun guitars!”
Fireball Ministry plays at the Viper Room Monday, October 22.