“I forgot…” reads the subject line of an email from Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian that lands in my inbox mere minutes after we’d hung up from an interview. It’s about his new band, Motor Sister, and its debut, Ride. Apparently, Ian had another thought about the album: “It’s the best rock record since Appetite-era G N’ R,” his e-missive states. “To my ears!”
These days, Guns N’ Roses can take over a decade to put out a CD. Motor Sister took just two…days. And the raw, bluesy record — produced by Jay Ruston, who is also helming the upcoming Anthrax disc — has shades of Rick Derringer, UFO, the Babys, Free, and Cheap Trick in its twelve tracks. It’s swaggering guitar rock with soul that might sound wonderfully familiar to some discerning rock fans. (More on that in a moment.)
Motor Sister is a gift. Literally, as it was Ian’s 50th birthday present. What the busy musician/spoken-word artist/dad wanted was to see one of his favorite (but defunct) bands live. That group was L.A.-based trio Mother Superior, who put out nine records between 1993 and 2008, and served as Henry Rollins‘s band from 1999 to 2003, notably on the seminal 2000 Get Some Go Again album.
It’d be one thing if Mother Superior simply played his party, but Ian got to be in the band. Mother Superior singer/guitarist Jim Wilson had been writing songs with Ian’s wife, singer Pearl Aday, for more than a dozen years. So when Ian brought up the idea of playing a one-night stand to Wilson, he “had a big smile and said, ‘Fuck yeah.’ ” The only problem: Mother Superior had been broken up for eight years. Scott seized the opportunity to put together a dream lineup around Wilson to play the tunes he craved. Recruiting bassist Joey Vera (Armored Saint), Aday, and drummer Johnny Tempesta (the Cult), they assembled, “literally, as a goof; just jamming those songs I loved in our jam room. That’s all it was meant to be,” Ian says. “I wasn’t thinking anything past that.”
Wilson hadn’t been fallow: In recent years he’s toured with Sparks and Daniel Lanois and served as the musical director on an Emmylou Harris tour. There was no trepidation about regrouping to play Mother Superior songs, as Ian affirms: “I knew this would work. There was never any question in my brain. Jim and I were in Pearl’s band together on tour; we’ve sat in each other’s houses and jammed on acoustics. I’ve been playing with Johnny since 1987 and known Joey since 1985. I knew it was going to be right. Especially Johnny, his energy and style of playing — where he comes from as a drummer — Cozy Powell is his favorite drummer.”
While Ian and Aday were rabid MS fans, it was new material for Tempesta. “I sent him the songs while he was on tour in Europe with the Cult,” recalls Ian. “I started getting texts from Johnny, at 4 a.m. Germany time, saying, ‘I’m in my bunk on the bus listening to this song “Devil Wing.” I just listened to it fourteen times in a row, I can’t wait to play it.’ ”
After one rehearsal the day before the birthday gig, it was clear Ian’s faith in the songs and players was well-founded. “It was instantly great,” he states. So much so that they subsequently decided to make a record of the dozen songs they’d jammed at the party. In deference to Mother Superior, the new lineup took a name from the song “Little Motor Sister,” and the album title from the lyric “ride, motor sister, ride.” Explains Ian: “None of the rest of us have anything to do with Mother Superior, so we said, ‘Hey, Jim, whatever you want, but new band, new life to the songs, new name moving forward. It’s the same, but it’s different, so why not?’ ”
If Ride sounds familiar, it’s because it’s made up of these originally Mother Superior songs, cherry-picked by Ian, with some arrangements slightly changed. “For me, through my filter and knowing the songs so well, I might say, ‘I feel like it needs to go to the chorus again,’ ” the guitarist explains. “Or maybe chop a part to get to something quicker, but not even on every song.”
Aday’s vocals add a new dynamic and dimension to the material. “Pearl and Jim have been singing together so long as a duo, their voices work so well,” Ian observes. “Whenever Jay Ruston works with them he says, ‘It’s so nice to work with people who know what the fuck they’re doing.’ They don’t need an hour to figure out harmony; they don’t need Auto-fucking-Tune. They sing, and it sounds the way it’s supposed to sound.”
Hence the quick ‘n’ dirty two-day recording session — but don’t expect Anthrax’s next album to be cut in a week. “This was a very specific scenario,” says Ian of Ride. “It wasn’t like we spent nine months or a year writing new songs. We were basically covering Jim’s songs. There are little things on the record that aren’t correct, but that’s part of the vibe; we did it live. It was made in an old-school way.” He finds the perfect analogy: “To make a really long story short: If we went in and re-recorded [Anthrax’s 1987 breakthrough album] Among the Living in two days, we could do it, put it that way.”
There are two more crucial things to know about Motor Sister: It’s not a “project,” and they’re not a “supergroup.”
“We are a band called Motor Sister, and we’re treating it like a band, though one at the mercy of people’s schedules,” states Ian. “Our intention is to do as much with it as we can.”
As for the supergroup tag? Says the man who was on the 2006 VH1 reality show SuperGroup: “I hate it. We’re just a band. A supergroup would denote, you know, Jimmy Page and Glenn Hughes and Steve Harris and Bill Ward. That’s a supergroup.
“That’s not lessening the individuals [in Motor Sister] — it just makes no sense to me.”
Motor Sister play St. Vitus with Static Summer and Abstract Artimus on February 12. 8 p.m., $12, 21+.