By STEVE MASCORD
EVEN for someone who spent 22 years singing for a band based in Norway, today is cold. Tony Harnell shivers under multiple layers as we search for somewhere to talk near our text-appointed meeting place in Manhattan.
There’s a chilly gust that could snap-freeze a campfire billowing down the artificial canyons. “Do you do celsius or fahrenheit?” the thin vocalist, raised in California, asks through teeth that are almost chattering. “You never get used to this sort of cold.”
But despite the Scandinavian climes and petty personality clashes, Harnell is back in that very combo, classic metallers TNT. It’s a reunion born of pragmatism, maturity and awareness of “a brand”. It’s also the end of the most fraught period in Harnell’s 51 years; a period which saw the death of his monther, opera singer Constance Haldaman, and his own career-threatening battle with thyroid cancer.
The word “perspective” immediately comes to mind, but the the exact chronology of TNT’s reunification is something he outlines a little reluctantly, tiptoeing around the feelings of his predecessor, Englishman Tony Mills.
“… I think he probably knows most of it,” Harnell muses, over a bowl of soup inside a warm cafe. “We did this anniversary show (in 2012).” At this point, former Shy vocallist Mills was still a fulltime member, Harnell just a guest. But, the American says, “after the first rehearsal, Ronnie (Le Tekro, guitarist) put his arm around me and said ‘you know, the door’s always open’
“… to which I think I said something like ‘let’s have foreplay before we jump back in the sack again’.”
TNT were formed in Trondheim in 1982, recruiting Harnell two years later after they serendipitously heard each other through a series of co-incidences that has still not been completely explained. The relationship led to success in the US and Japan, record sales in the millions and songs such as “10,000 Lovers (In One)” and “Everyone’s A Star”, which are still mainstays on American satellite radio.
Today, the line-up is completed by drummer Diesel Dahl and bass player Victor Borge. The reunion tour kicked off in January 18 this year in Oslo.
“Nothing about TNT isn’t a cliche,” Harnell says when asked about his seven-year haitus. “You know, there’s nothing about it that I can tell you that other bands haven’t experienced at some level.
“There’s no murders, there’s some occasional almost-coming-to-blows. It’s all just stupid shit. I know they’re not going to change and they know I’m not going to change. It’s a matter of saying ‘maybe I can make a different approach this time …”
If that all sounds a tiny bit shaky, Mills’ view of TNT’s was far more bleak. “I don’t think it’s sensible to expect new art from the band after 30 years, just a lot of re-living the past and reconstructions of old albums and performances,” he said upon his departure. “I hate wasting days and singing songs from the past to satisfy old fans.”
Harnell was was not best pleased.
“I’ve been a huge support of his,” he counters, “and then when he came out with that. I just thought it was a slap in the face to the longtime TNT fans who had welcomed him so warmly while he was singing basically my material.
“If he wasn’t able to put his stamp on the band, then I guess there wasn’t the right chemistry between him and Ronnie. So to go on and say ‘it’s just a nostalgia act and I don’t want to go on playing old songs for old fans anymore’, to me it’s career mistake 101. In the book of what you do and what you don’t do, you never diss the fans.”
Quite apart from Mills’ statements marking a tactical error, Harnell also contends they are wrong. By the end of this year, TNT will in fact be working on ‘new art’.
“If we’re going to continue after this year … we’re going to need to make a record,” he said.
Crowd-funding an EP, which has worked for Harnell’s recent Wildflowers collaboration with Guns N’Roses guitarist Bumblefoot (a venture which is to continue), will also be considered – as well self-funding some songs in order to find the ‘right’ record company.
In an era when veteran singers are being replaced by younger versions of themselves in bands like Journey and Queensryche, Harnell is an anomaly. Not only is he returning to the act in which he made his name but he’s doing it with much of his vocal range intact.
This time last year, Love/Hate’s Jizzy Pearl told Classic Rock presents: AOR that many eighties banshees were just plain lazy. “Don’t eat so much,” Pearl chided, “do sit-ups”
Tony Harnell, an original metal banshee, reckons that might be a tad harsh. “I think he’s right but I think there’s another side to it that should be discussed for a second and that’s just the mental and emotional strain of wanting to be so perfect all the time and not wanting to let the fans down,” Harnell argues.
“(But) there are singers whose names I won’t mention who I think could get their voices back even now if they stopped all the crap that they’re doing and just went to a good teacher and rebuilt their voices. One of my favourite singers could probably do that – but I don’t think he’s going to.”
But age has not been the biggest threat to Tony Harnell’s career in recent years. Not by a stretch.
“The last five years have been a real rollercoaster ride and that year in particular, to have my mom dying of breast cancer and then me diagnosed right in the middle of her decline, and then have her pass away a month after her surgery, and me have to go on and continue recuperating – it was a real crappy year.
“There as a possibility that I wasn’t going to get the voice back to what it was before.
“I don’t have a thyroid gland so I have to be on medication every day to do what the thyroid gland did. Let’s put it this way: if I stopped taking the medication, I’d probably be dead in about six weeks – or less.
“So that’s a little weird to think about, that your life is dependent on a pill every morning.
“I’m now the spokesperson for Thyroid Cancer in America and I’ve done a tonne of national press for them.
“I’ll be doing their annual convention in Las Vegas in May. It’s actual a special convention about this surgery that I had, on vocally gifted patients. There’ll be 1000 doctors there. I’ll be speaking. My surgeon will introduce me and I’ll then be performing. They’ll be able to see the whole process and then hear me sing. That’s kinda cool.
“I can say with pretty much 100 per cent certainty, that that particular cancer won’t kill me. Something else will kill me, eventually, like all of us….”
With that, it’s time to finish up go back outside. Hypothermia, perhaps?
Filed for: CLASSIC ROCK PRESENTS AOR
TONY HARNELL: Red Light, Green Light …. (2014)
By STEVE MASCORD
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