An Interview with Darrell DWaRf Millar

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On a sunny afternoon in Toronto, I had the pleasure of sitting down with none other than Darrell DWaRf Millar of Automan.ca/Killer Dwarfs/Laidlaw fame. We shared some laughs, some beers and some great stories. His new band, Automan.ca is getting ready to tear up the road on tour so be sure to check out their new album “Backseat Surprise” available now on Itunes or at www.automan.ca. So enough of my yakin, lets boogie!

Wally: I am sure most of the Decibel Geek fans out there know who Darrell Millar is but I am sure they don’t know about Automan.

Darrell: (interrupting) NO wait you have to say Darrell “Dwarf” Millar because No they won’t know who Darrell Millar is (laughing)

Wally:  Sorry Ok,  Darrell “DWaRf” Millar. (laughing) but how did Automan come to be?

Darrell: Oh it’s a cool story actually, it all stemmed from this other band I was drumming for called Laidlaw that I was a part of after the Dwarfs broke up. Through the 90’s I moved out to California and started playing with a friend of mine “Craig DeFalco” and the band struggled like all bands in the beginning but we got signed by Nikki Sixx of all people. So then Nikki Sixx ended up being my boss which was very weird for like 5 years and he signed Laidlaw to a deal to his label that’s not around now “Americoma records”  and the next thing you know we are touring with Motley Crue. We did 2 tours with them, the “Greatest Hits” tour, we played Massey Hall here on that tour in 1998..

Wally: I was there for that show, in fact it was the first concert I saw with my wife that night.

Darrell: Oh cool did you even know it was me?
Wally: Well not when I got there but I told my wife “I think that’s Darrell Dwarf playing drums”

Darrell: Well he announced it, cause they are all from California and he announced that this guy is from your home town. That was cool seeing Motley in a theatre eh? They packed in this huge light show. That was the biggest light show I have ever seen in there; like the trusses came right down. The confetti cannons, that show was off the charts! Anyway we did that tour, did the Maximum Rock tour with Motley, the Scorpions and Laidlaw  and then ZZ Top.
I was out with ZZ Top and there was this roadie band that used to have this sound check they would do every night for Billy Gibbons and they invited me up to sing a song. They didn’t know if I could sing, they just wanted a guy to get up and fill the void while they were checking the instruments. So they did “Learning to Fly” by the Foo Fighters , the bass player sang that and they did “Shot Down in Flames” by AC/DC which is my thing. So I got up and sang that right, so for like 35 cities I am getting up at the soundcheck and singing that song. So one day Billy Gibbons comes into my dressing room looking for me and he goes “Hey son, you really sing the hell outta that AC/DC” (laughing) and he walked out and I am like Billy Gibbons just said I could sing! That’s pretty cool you know? So I am like, a light bulb went on and I decided it was time to revisit my roots when I was in Sphinx, where I used to be a singer in my very first band, dummer/singer you know and I decided to put together a band. When I got back to Toronto and Laidlaw was done and the Dwarfs did their reunion and during that reunion tour I put this thing together.

I met Carleton Lockhart, my guitarist and writing partner, phenominal guitar player and we started putting together a band; just the 2 of us. So we wrote some tunes and went in the studio and demo’d 5 songs just the two of us, which became Test Drive X5 with me on vocals and drums and Carlton on guitar and bass which became our very first record. So then we built the band around that, we got Adrian Cavan and John Fenton that are in the band now. Same lineup that we have had from the start, so it was really the ZZ Top tour that gave me the idea and the confidence to do this.

Wally: You mentioned Carleton, and he has a very unique sound on the guitar, how did you hook up with him?
Darrell: Well Carleton..well I forgot to mention that before Automan started, I put together an AC/DC tribute band and Carleton was in the band with a couple of other guys because I wasn’t sure I could really do this (as a frontman) at a certain level you know? So I went underground and put together this tribute band called Auto-Bon which turned into Automan, but Auto Bon did 17 shows and I did 2 hours of AC DC and if that doesn’t chainsaw your voice into shape to get it ready singing two hours of ACDC every night, I mean oh my god! So that was my “hockey practice” to get myself ready for Automan  and it worked fabulously for me to get my chops up. Anyway Carleton, I found Carlton strangely enough we own a hair salon (me and my wife) in Toronto and Carleton was a client at the salon. So I told my wife, “I am looking for a short guitarist that kinda looks like Angus Young and must have an SG guitar” (laughing) I am not lying to you. So she goes to me “I know a guy like that.” Turns out he is a client of the salon and has a day job downtown, so she gets in touch with him and he was into it.

So I meet with Carleton and it turns out he is this little short dude, kinda looks like Angus a bit but he’s left handed and he has an SG. Now he hates the SG but he played it anyway just to be in an AC DC band. Now the other freaky thing about this “six degrees of separation” it turns out he is from Moncton, New Brunswick and he had a band that opened for the Killer Dwarfs back in Dartmouth back in the early 80’s and had met me and hung out for about an hour. Then, years later he ends up in my cover band and now my partner in Automan. It’s really amazing. He’s a freak though (laughing) he’s not really into metal more into Jeff Beck and Keith Richards and he plays a guitar left handed and its strung upside down without a pick. Really what he did was learn how to play using a rig
ht handed guitar and just flipped it around and strummed in reverse. People look at him and go “how is he doing that?” but he had to and it’s not that crazy but without the pick it gives it a real warm tone that you can hear on Down on the Bone.
Wally: You had mentioned to me the “Tom Petty” connection with Greg Looper. So how did that all come into play?
Darrell: Yeah that’s all pretty cool. I happen to know many, many road crew. I am more friends with road crew than rock stars. I even built a site called roadcrew live.com that I run that I did interviews with the guys in tribute to them. I don’t make money off it but these guys are the guys that make you roll and without them we are nobody and they don’t get near enough credit. So I gave them this site and they appreciated it, there’s about twelve guys on there. One guy recently passed away “Davy Kirkwood” famous soundman worked for Rainbow and Dio for years he died last year of complications from a botched operation, very sad.  

Anyways, Greg Looper is on that site and Cosmo Wilson who is one of my best friends who is AC/DC’s lightman, he was on tour with Whitesnake and Greg was working with them so he introduced me to Greg. Greg was full time with Tom Petty but when he is not on the road Greg works different bands so he was introduced to Automan and was into it so he mixed the “Pocket Change” album and was interested in actually recording with us. So I told him “your not going to get Tom Petty money” (laughing) but he was into it and came up to Toronto to do the album.

Wally: So, I am headed out to the Rockpile in June to see you guys perform. What can fans expect that come see an Automan show?
Darrell: Well, you can expect some really good opening acts. (laughing) You can expect to hear the music like a Rush show; very true to what`s on the record. Very rich background vocals on the songs. That`s what I love about the band is but we seem to sound a touch heavier live due to the PA and what not. People are saying that “ I think you sound better live than on the record,” which is good because a lot of bands cant recreate their own sound live. I`d rather have that than the other way and I hope when you see us you`ll agree.
Wally: Any touring plans south of the border coming up?

Darrell: Most definitely, but here`s the thing. Touring the States has become a tough nut to crack for a couple reasons.  Number one is the border issues have changed and the fees for bands to come down and play are through the roof. They are up to $2000 dollars for a band to be processed to come down and play and the waiting times to process are brutal. Sometimes the tours come up fast, all of the sudden you just get a call and `Tom Petty` has some shows (or whoever is out) but it`s all last minute. Like Killer Dwarfs; when we got the Iron Maiden tour it was because Ace Frehley was sick and we got slotted in last minute you know. So now we have issue waiting because we need dates to even be considered for process but we can`t begin the process without dates. You can`t even say to them, “Okay, here`s the $2000 we want to tour the US six months from now;” they say no. So it’s a real issue right now but look we are trying to get something booked for the fall. We will tour America this album for sure and I have a PR team in Australia so we are planning to play there in 2013.
Wally: So back to Laidlaw for a moment, what was working with Nikki Sixx like?

Darrell: I don`t know, I mean I didn’t know what to expect. I mean you read all the `diaries` and stuff and you hear how fucked up they were but I mean I got to work with Nikki at a good time you know. Nikki Sixx was completely sober and fit, he worked out every day, was a happy guy and he was very professional you know. Brian Dobbs  engineered it, worked with Metallica on the Black album with Bob Rock. In walks Steve Perry from Journey one day and sings back up. I mean kinda surreal, Steve Perry signing, Nikki Sixx is my producer it was like a weird dream you know. Oh and it gets better, we are recording at Rover Studios in Burbank, California which is `Tiffany`s studio where they recorded all the bubblegum pop songs.

Wally: The Dwarfs toured with a lot of great bands, do any favourites come to mind?
Darrell: Well I really value the Dio show and it was only one show at CNE with Dio, Yngwie Malmsteen and the Dwarfs. There was a big lightning storm that night; it was a great special effect. Ronnie was such a sweetheart. It`s a sad, sad thing this cancer has taken so many in the past little while. I mean you have like 5 musicians in the last couple months. You have Gibb (Barry), Donna Summer, Montrose (Ronnie), the guy from the Band (Levon Helm),  so for Ronnie to die of stomach cancer was so sad. He was such a powerful vocalist. I wrote that song `Hurts to be Alive` on the record about all those guys I have lost recently, Dee (Cernile) from Sven Gali was another. It`s in the liner notes all the guys that the song is dedicated to, I mean I usually write `good time, party tunes` but life isn’t always like that.  Sometimes it`s fucked up.  I wasn`t sure it was right for the band and was thinking of selling it off but Carlton talked me into keeping it and having it an Automan tune and I thank him for that. Boy, did we get off track, what was the question?

Wally: It was who was your favourite act to tour with?

Darrell: Dio for sure, but then I would have to say Iron Maiden because they have remained friends to this day. Steve even had Automan open up in Winnipeg and c`mon Automan should not be opening for Iron Maiden at all. It was supposed to be Dream Theatre but they pulled out of the Winnipeg show, played every other show on the tour but bailed on Winnipeg. Anyways, we had a rough gig but we got through it and Steve and his son were there, they loved it and said we did great. Steve said most new bands don’t make it past a couple songs opening for Maiden but you got in your whole set. Good old Steve though, getting us the show.

Wally: You guys played some shows with Pantera, how was that?

Darrell: Oh Fuck, that was just weird, and I will tell you why, because I wasn’t ready for what Pantera had become. I hadn`t tapped into the Pantera fame yet because I mean heavy metal was dying, gunge had just hit and some of these newer bands were coming up but Pantera had this whole new sound. We were switching off with Skid Row, sometimes we would play first, sometimes Pantera would go on first depending on the market so that was cool and we were both Ok with that. Pantera were the shit, they were really heavy but not too heavy, they had this really aggressive sound but you could understand it unlike most of the grindcore scream shit and Dimebag was off the charts. Their energy was so intense, I thought the Dwarfs had energy, I mean Russ had ENERGY but Pantera was so powerful and they could just stand there in this stance and just like `cmon fuckers!`  I was a huge fan of them and Skid Row, great band, Baz is an amazing singer and I am proud that. That was our last arena tour and I got to play 30 shows with them.

Wally: Just as grunge was about to change it all.

Darrell: Well it had to you know, it was necessary I guess. I can look at it now and see it objectively seeing as I didn’t end up homeless because of it (laughing). But seriously, it was scary when the Dwarfs broke up. It was getting so bad near the end. Grunge came along and it was necessary to have something new to get us through to the next thing and it didn’t last long. Grunge was really only about a five year deal and then it was grunge that became watered down as well, so we could evolve into what we have now, like Nickelback you know what I mean?
Wally: ohhhh ouch Nickelback, kind of a sore spot at the Decibel Geek show (laughing)

Darrell: Oh man I am sick of the bashing man I am tired of it I mean Chad is a phenomenal songwriter and I think the best thing that came out of that `Metal Evolution` show was the scene with Jerry Cantrell came out and talks about Nickelback who said “I know they get bashed a lot but I have played with Nickelback, and until you have seen them live you don`t get it cause they are one of the heaviest bands on the road“. Dude their songs on the radio are nothing like they are live, live they are pounding metal man. I respect anyone that can sell 12 million records (laughing).
Wally: So the last time I saw the Dwarfs was back on the reunion tour in 2001, you guys played a great set in Mississauga, had just released the live CD and DVD and I figured that was the start of something but it never seemed to get off the tarmac.
Darrell: The big Reunion of Scribes, I will ask you a question. Do you think that was a little ahead of its time. I mean not that we knew, we just reformed because we decided to, not like we were looking at a clock and could say `Yep heavy metal is popular again` but do you think if we had of done that right now, do you think it would have been different?

Wally: Yeah I do.

Darrell: Me too, I think, unfortunately we were ahead of the curve. It seems all the bands are back together and touring. From big bands like Judas Priest to even like Bang Tango are back at it. Firehouse is back together.

Wally: But the thing about it now is people remember that it was such a good time and people really want that again.

Darrell: Oh I know they do, well that’s what I am trying to do with Automan, we are a new band playing classic rock and I am in it though. I AM Darell DWARF, I can`t change that. Look at me as the Canadian Dave Grohl (laughing).  I am off the drums and out front doing it in a way that no one has seen before, I wear the silly suits and hats and get out and rock out and give them that fun which was the 80`s. That’s who I am, my show is fun. It’s the real deal.

Wally: Ok my last question for you, tell me the song you wish you wrote?

Darrell: Nice, can it be any band or the Dwarfs. That’s a tough one, I have done thousands of interviews and have never been asked that exact question. I`ll have to think about it.

Ok what song I wished I wrote? Strutter by Kiss. (laughing) Okay no, that would have been my answer if you asked me when I was 15. I would have to say Man on the Silver Mountain (Rainbow) or Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple).

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