The running joke about L.A. metal band White Wizzard is that they've gone through more lineup changes since 2007 than Deep Purple did in 45 years. At last count, 16 musicians have been among Wizzard's ranks, and the only founding member who remains is bass player and chief songwriter Jon Leon.
The current lineup — intact for a full year now! — features singer Joseph Michael, whose voice is astonishing both for its power and its similarity to the man who is said to be his cousin, the late Ronnie James Dio. We asked him about that, and we also spoke to Leon ahead of their record release show at The Roxy tomorrow, July 9. Topics discussed include sadomasochistic metaphors for religion, the right way to be retro, and, of course, Dio.
See also: The 20 Greatest Metal Albums in History
What are the characters on the cover of your new album, The Devil's Cut?
JL: The bottom is a priest that's ball-gagged, and what's riding him is a nun. She's beating him with a ruler, with stiletto high heels on.
Do they have names?
JL: No, it's just a tongue-in-cheek poke at organized religion, something you'll see as a theme in my lyrics from time to time. I'm pretty big-time about freedom of expression and thought and not letting yourself be oppressed by any sort of group mentalities, so I've got a pretty big problem with organized religions…I went to Catholic school all my life, of course. I think [the album art] kind of symbolizes how, even within religion's own confines, it kind of balls and gags you. It tries to make you conform to a certain belief pattern that's almost a cult-like mentality.
Joseph, How long have you been singing?
JM: Well, who hasn't been singing their whole life? Seriously singing, maybe for 13 years.
Did you ever take voice lessons?
JM: No. Originally, I played guitar and piano. I've been doing this professionally since I was 16. I dropped out of high school [in Utica, New York] to teach music and couldn't find a singer that could do everything that I wanted, so I just started doing it myself, started learning how to do it properly.
When did you move to L.A.?
JM: When I was 19, I was managing an Italian restaurant, and literally on the spur of the moment, I just quit my job and gathered up my songs, and I bought a Greyhound ticket. I know, it's so cliche. But I just came out here. I didn't know anybody. I slept on the street for, I don't know, five days? A week? Met a local drummer who had a band, Peppermint Creeps. The drummer is Traci Michaelz, who recently passed away…I joined his band [as the bass player] within a day and had a place to stay. And here I am, 13 years later. It's been quite a ride.
White Wizzard's music sounds very influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. It's almost like you're doing an homage to that era. It's easy to fault bands who try to be retro, but in this case, your musicianship is so strong, I can't find anything to hold against you.
JL: Some of our influences always come through, I guess, but none of it's contrived. I'm just writing songs, and that spirit channels through it all. I think that's the core of what connects people with the band. There's nothing contrived about it. I think some of these bands do it really formulaically, and you can just tell, you know? This isn't formulaic at all. It's literally coming from the heart.
I really do think that pretty much everything has been done, to some extent. What's going to separate the great bands from the contrived-sounding bands is individuality of expression and songwriting…I'm a musician before I'm a metalhead, and I'm a music fan before I'm a metalhead.
Joseph, what is the story behind this rumor that you're Ronnie James Dio's cousin?
JM: That's true. People make a bigger deal out of it than it seems to me, but yeah. He was a family member.
What's the relationship?
JM: My uncle is his cousin. It's kind of hard to explain. Dio's aunt and uncle were also my uncle's great aunt and uncle. It's a couple times removed.
Is this on your mom's side or your dad's side?
JM: My father's side.
Did you ever encounter Dio?
JM: I spoke with him once, after I put out my first record, and I was looking to get some traction in the metal magazines at the time. I reached out to him because I was going to record a version of “Heaven and Hell” with my old band, Midnight Reign, and was just giving him a hello, basically. But, no, I never met him. Never hung out with him. Just pictures on the wall, really, for most of my life.
Your voice sounds so much like his that it's almost scary.
JM: [Laughs] I keep hearing that [from other people]. I don't hear it. Maybe certain little things, but I think that's more from just listening and being a fan than any genetic thing.