Rick Fisher is the Manilla Road drummer on the first three albums – Invasion, Metal and Crystal Logic ( as well as the later-released Dreams of Eschaton ) – graciously stepping down from the band in 1984 to allow founder Mark Shelton to move on to Manilla Road’s thrash-era, and beyond. Now, with any other band of a similar fanbase and reputation, that would have probably been that. But not in this case! They say that one thing about good friendship, is it’s always worth picking the pieces back up again, however long it has been, and thanks in part to the post-80s success of Manilla Road’s music on an entirely new generation of music fans from the ’00s onwards ( and the hard work of various underground fanzine writers. promoters, movers and shakers ), Rick and Mark did rekindle that musical flame and friendship in 2011, in the studio and for live gigs, and leading to the excellent RIDDLEMASTER album which you should certainly have in your collection, culminating in Rick performing at the Mark Shelton Tribute show in Germany in 2019, after the very sad passing of Mark in 2018. In this interview Rick talks recording those early albums, his drumming style, time spent with Mark, his life outside music, family and fatherhood, dealing with getting older, what you could do to try and make the world a bit better for yourself and others ( listen to some good country music, for a start ), and lastly, wonders just why do the Greeks, French and the Germans love the band so much?
Main pic – Richard Cathey.
Hello Rick! How’s life where you are at the moment?
Life is pretty good right now in spite of all that’s going on. We live in a rural part of Kansas about twenty miles from Wichita with few close neighbors so as long as we stay home as much as possible our chances of getting the virus are much diminished. We can get out of the house when the weather is nice & walk the pastures for exercise & not meet anybody.
How did you get into drumming? There seems to be a fair bit of space rock in the early rhythms...
Believe it or not, I got into playing drums when my older sister’s friend gave me a set of bongos ( hey it was the 60’s, bongos were big then with folk music being popular LOL). I had tried guitar & piano lessons but I learned pretty quick that rhythm was my thing so drums it was for me. I never took formal lessons but taught my self by jamming to records in my parents basement. I saved up my money from shining shoes & boots in a barber shop near the Wichita stock yards to buy a cheap no name five piece set I had my eye on at a pawn shop up the street from the barber shop. It came with no cymbals so I started working in my dad’s upholstery shop sweeping floors & doing general manual labor. It paid better & within a few months I bought a ride & a crash cymbal which were also cheap no name pawn shop purchases ( the crash only lasted a few months) I was 12 years old at the time. My parents gave me a set of headphones & a practice pad for Christmas that year. I still have the headphones & never used the practice pad.
The albums I jammed to were popular bands at the time, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Creedance Clearwater Revival, etc. you get the idea. Most of my influences were guys like Doug Clifford (CCR), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) I guess he was the “Space Rock” influence, Don Brewer (Grand Funk Railroad) and later on the great Ian Pace (Deep Purple) & Lee Kerslake (Uriah Heep), both after seeing them play live.
Can you remember much about recording the first albums?
Recording Invasion was the first time I had ever been in a recording studio. Miller’s Cave was a basement apartment converted into a recording studio We recorded the drums in what was the kitchen, it still had the cook stove in there & I had to look down a hallway to see Mark & Scott. All the equipment was new or slightly used & they mostly recorded country & gospel groups. We were the first hard rock band they ever recorded so there was a steep learning curve for Larry Funk, the engineer. I probably had 6 tracks for my drums & by then I had a better 5 piece no name set, not quite as cheaply made as my first set but a slightly better quality. Being somewhat ignorant of recording gear I have no idea what mics were used. I was so in awe of the fact that we were actually recording an album I didn’t pay much attention to what was all involved.
When we recorded Dreams Of Eschcaton, the studio was being remodeled into a more profesional space with a real isolation booth & a large room so we could be in the same place to record bed tracks which was a good thing because by then I had purchased my large Tama kit with six concert toms, floor tom, one bass drum,snare and 5 cymbals. I then had about eight or so tracks. With each subsequint album, Jon Miller continued to improve the studio & Larry got much better at engineering our music getting closer to what we wanted to sound like but it took a lot of time & experimentation & we still wern’t there yet.
‘The Dream Goes On’ sure has a lot of good beats…did you ever get the girls ‘shaking their thang’ at early gigs?
LOL The Dream Goes On might have been a danceable tune but we were playing to so few people at the time I don’t remember anyone but the drunkest chicks shaking their asses to much of the stuff we were playing.
One thing that sticks out about a lot of those early recordings like Invasion is the vocals are rather loud, like the studios didn’t understand loud music…how did it sound to your ears at the time? And of course the Metal album?
The mixes on the earliest albums were not what the band really sounded like live. Larry was trying to mix us like we were one of the country bands he was used to recording & it really wasn’t quite what we hoped for. We hired a producer to help with Metal, Crystal Logic & Flaming Metal Systems (which we originally recorded for Mike Varney’s U.S. Metal III) things improved for the most part. Mastering was also a problem. Many of the remastered re releases sound much better than the original. Especially the Dreams Of Eschcaton which was remastered by Patrick Engle & released by High Roller records.
Were you happy with Dreams of Eschaton after recording it? Mark apparently ‘hated it’ ( if wikipedia is to be believed ). It must have been a bit of a blow after the time spent recording, that it was shelved?
I liked all the tunes on Dreams Of Eschaton & a lot of people didn’t realize that it was shelved before we really finished it. I don’t know that Mark hated it but his writing wasn’t really going where he wanted to go. He really wanted to get away from the spacey dreamy stuff that he was writing he wanted a heavier rock sound. I was disappointed when he decided to not release it at the time because I liked the songs like Black Lotus, Venusian Sea & Mark Of The Beast but it probably was best at the time. We had already written much of the music that would become Metal & were rehearsing that music when we started recording Dreams & he liked what he was writing much better by then.
Has drum technology particularly improved since those early days? What do you use now compared to then, drums and cymbal wise? Do you still like huge toms?! 🙂
I’m very much an “old school” kind of guy & tend to stick with things that work for me, so if drum technology has changed, I haven’t noticed much. The only kit I own is the old Tama Imperial Star octoplus set I bought back when we recorde Dreams, having added a second bass drum in time to record the Metal album. My only new gear is a set of DW5000 pedals to replace the sluggish Tama pedals that came with the kit and yes, I still love my huge concert toms!
Manilla Road are often touted as being consistent all these years, but actually Mark seemed to me to be very much a man of his time, for instance riding the growling doom stuff in the 90s, and of course the wave of thrash in the mid 80s, which is where you stepped off…were you happy with everything on Crystal Logic, or was there stuff on there that was making you reconsider your position? If so, do you still feel the same now?
I was happy with the music & my playing on Crystal Logic & Flaming Metal Systems which we recorded at the same time. Nothing on that album made me consider leaving the band. He had started writing the music for Open The Gates while we were recording Crystal Logic & that is where things started to change for me. I’ve never been a thrash fan & it became obvious to me that he was heading in that direction & I knew it was time for me to go at that point. I didn’t want to but he kind of forced the issue with his writing. He wrote a few tunes after I left that I would have liked to have played on, things that were more up my alley but that’s all history now.
You must have realised quite early on that with Mark’s songwriting the band was something special….did you have any expectations of success in those days? Did you feel you really ‘had something’?
Right from the beginning we had high aspirations for the band. We were all pulling in the same direction. When we couldn’t get a label to listen to us, much less sign us, we started Roadster Records to try & get our name & Mark’s music out there. Mark & I often talked in the last few years about that. Had it been the age of the internet like now, it might have been easier. In fact it really wasn’t till the internet became a thing that success found Mark in Europe. I think most of the fans we have now were but a glimmer in their father’s eye when we recorded the early stuff. Mark certainly deserved all the adoration he received & then some at the time of his passing.
Would you class yourself as a musical drummer? Were you not so keen on the idea of ‘overplaying’? I mean, many drummers would jump at the chance of playing fast and doing all those fills, like Randy Foxe. But then, I listen to your footwork on Flaming Metal Systems, with all the syncopation in the transition parts ‘oh I know just how you feel’ and I do wonder, if someone had asked me to cover that song, I would never have guessed what you were doing, and would have played it completely differently – there is definitely more going on than first meets the ears with a lot of those songs…part of the magic of the Manilla Road drummers I guess?
I thought of myself as a musical drummer starting with the Dreams Of Eschaton album, I don’t like to play “busy” doing fills every four bars or whatever. Some compositions need room to breathe, I don’t feel the need to fill up every every space. I have drummers approach me & ask how the hell I played that shuffle beat on Enter The Warrior to this day. Like Mark developed his own style on guitar, I developed my own style of drumming. I still played that way on the RIDDLEMASTER album Mark & I put out in 2018. Comparing my drumming to Randy’s or Cory’s or Neudi’s is comparing apples to oranges. We are all unique & that contributes to the Manilla Road sound.
Only yourself and Scott Park are left who played on those first three albums. Have you heard anything from him? If not, it’s funny how we lose touch with some people in our lives, despite sharing so much...
I haven’t talked to Scott since I left the band. Even Mark & I went our seperate ways & didn’t talk to each other for about 20 years. Not that there was any animosity between any of us but we just drifted apart as thing often go, you know. Mark kept in touch with Scott over the years & even tried to get him to do “nostalgia “shows Like I did with him but Scott is perfectly happy to not live in the past. He left the music lifestyle behind & doesn’t look back. We respect his wishes & don’t bother him.
How did you find the Mark Shelton tribute at Keep It True 2019? I busted my ass to get there from Birmingham and it was well worth it. And surely it must have been amazing having your own drumkit riser wheeled on stage like that…or was that just another day at the office?
That tribute show at Keep It True was truly a crazy mix of emotions. It felt great to play Mark’s music again & was sad at the same time because he wasn’t there, I think he would have approved. It was a rush to get to play with so many talented musicians, many of whom I hadn’t met before & some who are old friends & all of them genuinely nice people who respected Mark. Having my own drumriser rolled out was definetly not just a day at the office. Oliver Weinsheimer and his crew went all out to make that show a wonderful experience for all of us!
Aside from your performance at the Tribute, did you keep any involvement with the band after leaving? Have you listened to any of their later albums, and perhaps particularly enjoyed them?
Like I said earlier, Mark & I hadn’t talked for the better part of twenty years but he contacted me about where to send a royalty check for Crystal Logic. We met for lunch not long after that & went to his studio to listen to his latest which was Playground of the Damned & the first Hellwell album. We picked up with our friendship like no time had passed at all. I had heard most of the reformation albums he & Bryan did & enjoyed all of them. He invited me to come anytime to the studio so we spent a lot of time together there discussing all aspects of his music & all he had been up to,asking my opinion of this song or that one, did I like the drum sound & mix on Playground (I didn’t & told him why) that kind of thing. They all came to the ranch for a July 4th BBQ when Neudi came to the states the first time to play a gig in Wichita, we all had a great time at that gig. I was in the studio a day later to watch Neudi track drums for Mysterium. Not long after that, Bryan & Mark called to ask if I wanted to go to Germany to play a 30th anniversary show for Crystal Logic at Metal Assault III in 2013, of course I said yes! I became a fixture at Midgard studios helping him track guitars for Blessed Curse & generally hanging out with him discussing our lives past & present. We recorded me playing drums on an old tune we did back in the day called All Hallows Eve that he included on the After the Muse album which was marketed as a bonus with the Blessed Curse album. I think he was genuinely happy to have me around again, I know I certainly was.
How did you feel about playing to click-tracks?
We didn’t use them at all in the early days, just set up in the studio & played like it was a “live” situation for the bed tracks. We did use clicks in Mark’s studio for recent recordings & I found them useful since Mark would put down his guitar tracks first.
I can’t help thinking that Mark was in a rush to record and release as much as he possible could in his last years, almost as if he knew time was short…
That was my thought as well. Did he know time was short? Only Mark could say but it did seem like he was being productive more than ever. Mark & I had been friends since we were 17 years old. We talked a lot about our lives in his last few months & even speculated death when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2017 with him saying he always thought it would be him that went first since I always took better care of myself than he did. I beat the cancer in 2018. He took me to Greece to play at Up the Hammers that spring, I was still sick & he wanted to do this show just in case I didn’t make it. He turned out to be right of course because he was gone two months later, so , yes I think he might have known time was short for us, one way or the other.
How about Riddlemaster, the parallel universe in which Rick Fisher never left Manilla Road. What a brilliant idea to relight the flame where you left off…maybe you can tell us a bit about that?
Mark & I had been kicking the idea around of doing an album together ever since we recorded All Hallows Eve, I really had a good time working with him again & it seemed like it was a good idea. I think he was writing music to fit which drummer he would be working with because most of the music for the second Hellwell album was written with Randy’s playing in mind. I believe Randy knocked it out of the park, by the way It fit so well with what Mark had written. The same with the Manilla Road albums that Neudi played on. He was really customizing his music to fit us. One night after he finished rehearsing with Bryan & Phil, I sat down behind the studio drumset & we just started jamming like we used to do in the early days, Derek Brubaker, Marks studio engineer was listening & suggested we track some of the jams we were doing. We never did record any of it but Mark used a lot of the riffs we were jamming on & the album just came together. In the early days I didn’t have much input into how our albums were produced, I have no talent for song writing but I told him from the start I wanted RIDDLEMASTER to be a true collaborative effort, he agreed,so I had a hand in choosing song subjects, production, mixing etc. he was really pleased with the outcome. I don’t know for sure that we achieved the goal of what The Road would have sounded like had I not left the band but we both felt like we came up with a solid album. He even wrote & recorded guitar parts for a second RIDDLEMASTER album. While those files still exist, I doubt I will ever be able to finish it due to problems with settling his estate since he died without having a will.
How big is music in your life, compared to other commitments? It seems that the people who ‘make it’ have to sacrifice a lot in order to do it….
Music has always been an important part of my life. I hear it in my head day & night, it’s always with me. As far as “making it” goes though, all I can say is I got lucky once in my musical life. The music scene in Wichita was mostly cover bands playing in bars, not my thing. I hate covering others music, especially if the original is a really well done piece. Playing with Mark spoiled me, he was so creative & gave me room to be creative in my playing. I never found anyone that was as much fun to work with.
I pretty much stopped playing for the better part of 20 years to start my own business and support my family, that is where my commitment was while Mark kept at it, making Manilla Road an international success in the underground metal scene. I ended up going along for that ride not even knowing I was still a part of it! I did not realize how popular the band was until Mark & Bryan took me to Germany (they wanted me to see what I was a part of) and ended up in a crowd of fans at the meet & greet signing autographs. They tried to warn me but it was still a bit overwhelming & very much a surprise so I guess you could say my sacrifice was the time I spent not playing music while Mark toiled on. I was just plain lucky.
What about the best gig(s) you ever saw? What would be a dream gig for you now?
I’ve seen so many great gigs over the years it’s hard to pick a best. Like a lot of people, the one that stands out in my memory was my first rock concert, which featured Bo Didley, Tower Of Power & headliner Creedance Clearwater Revival. Old Bo tore it up as the opener & I was completely mesmerized for the entire show. Other noteable shows are Kansas on their Monolith tour. Their laser light show was on the blink & the opening band couldn’t make it so they played a 3 hour show including the entire Leftoverture album. Pretty amazing musicianship without the effects show. I’ve seen a few Black Sabbath shows but the only one that really impressed me was the Heaven and Hell tour. Dio & the band killed it that night. I’m not a big Ozzy fan but the Blizzard of Oz show blew me away as did Alice Cooper on the schools out tour.
Dream gig? I would love to see Rush with Neil again along with Queen (whom I’ve never seen) with Freddie….but that’s all just a dream now.
It’s funny how Germany in particular ‘gets’ Manilla Road so well – maybe it goes back to the migrations from those parts to the US in the 18 and 19th Centuries. I guess lots of Americans have German and Scandinavian ancestry? ( We English sent you all of our puritan lunatics, we’re sorry about that… ).
Man, I have’nt delved much into my geneology but I know my dad’s people immigrated from Germany around the turn of the 20st century. Great great grandad dropped the “c” from his last name after WWI to not be associated with his mother country I guess. Mom’s people were English but I don’t know about the Puritan angle, My mom’s mother made & sold bathtub gin during prohibition. Lol.
I don’t know why the Germans are so drawn to Manilla Road but I do know there is a strong following from the French & Greeks as well.
Did you get into upholstery through your father’s business? Do you have a love of old cars, and bikes? If so, any favourites? I guess you have to be pretty methodical and patient? ( My uncle was an upholsterer for Kings College in Cambridge….he’d whip these antique chairs about and make it look really easy…but I guess it’s not so easy!?)
I did get into Upholstery through my dad’s business. He saw I had some talent & creativity so he encouraged me to learn the trade. Although we upholstered both funiture & cars, the art of custom auto upholstery & restoration of antique car interiors (there is a distict difference) really spoke to me as a teenager so I put my efforts into teaching myself how the master craftsmen of the time were creating their masterpieces & it has been my main source of making a living, hence my affection for all things automotive. Like any creative art, be it music, painting , stagecraft, upholstery, etc. it takes a lifetime to become really good & you have to be your own worse critic in order to improve & there is no room for ego, only confidence in yourself.
Thinking of the Manilla Road lyrical angle, are you still a big reader?
I read a fair amount & have a varied interst in what I read. I try to educate myself on life & the human condition. I’m mostly drawn to history, philosophy, ancient myths, psycology & poetry, not much into fantasy,but some horror & some scifi. My guilty pleasure is what I call “who done it” spy/ dectective novels and historic fiction.
I re read The Rise & Fall Of The Third Reich & Orwell’s 1984 again after Trump was elected be cause I wanted to remember if all the signs were there for fascism taking root here. I am a firm believer that history is the great road map of pit falls for society to avoid in our future human endeavors.
US is such a fascinating country, but things are very much polarised at the moment there I guess, with democrats seeing themselves as progressive, and republicans as traditional? I was bought up working-class, but socially-conservative, I think I understand both sides, and everyone is guilty of having a bit of a ‘blind spot’ sometimes, but 74 million voters, in the most powerful country on earth, voted for what appears to be little more than a personality cult…. Seeing as you are rural and in the red belt, how does that pan out for you?
As your famous Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. I find that governments all over the world, with the exception of dictatorships by virtue of repression of opposing views, are very much divided into two camps. Those who believe government should be small & keep its hands off the riches they make from the working class & those who believe that government is there for all people no matter their status as to money or class, my beliefs are somewhere in the middle with a bit of “left leaning” & have voted both Republican & Democrat over my lifetime. The truth is, Government is the price we pay for a civilized society. This is the world we’ve made & now must live in. If we must have people who wish to lead we that do not wish to lead, than we must choose wisely. While I understand it takes a certain amount of self confidence to lead, I believe we would do better to avoid such hubris as many politicians through the years have displayed, something many Americans do not understand. Humbleness in being chosen to lead shows a willingness to listen to all points of view & while it is impossible to please everyone regardless of status or societal class our leaders must be able to walk the tightrope of fairness & respect for freedom as written in our constitution & not subvert it for their own gain no matter the political party they belong to. All that being said, I have neighbors & friends who are Republican that have bought into the outright attempt to subvert the constitution of the past four years. I am heartened by the fact that many of my rural neighbors were able to see this & voted accordingly, I have lost good longtime friends recently (their choice) because they listened to & believe the internet conspiracy theories the previous administration was based on,which is sad & has made me question not only their friendship but their intelligence & empathy towards others as well.
You live remotely – did you have a rural upbringing? It looks fantastic…all that space! Can you play the drums at your house? That would be most drummers’ dream! Could you ever live in a city?
I grew up in Wichita, about 25 miles from where I live now. It was a city of about two hundred thousand back then, population now is close to three hundred thousand. My wife Karen grew up in a small town 6 miles from our current home & she tried for the better part of ten years to get me move from the city. I compromised & we moved to her hometown of Augusta where I started my own upholstery shop & we lived for ten years before buying our small “ranch” of forty acres of rolling pasture land. We’ve lived here for fifteen years now with me running my business out of a building on our property.
I have my drums set up in the upholstery shop & can play anytime I wish without disturbing my neighbors, the nearest are about a quarter mile away if you don’t count the cattle across the road, as long as I have the doors all closed (it has both heat & airconditioning for my comfort). I “retired” from upholstering (basically cut way back on the amount of work I take on) this past summer after being diagnosed with cancer, this time lymphoma, which I have undergone chemotherapy for and I am recovering nicely though there is no cure. That’s the second time I’ve beat cancer in last three years but I’m doing fine right now, we will be selling the ranch sometime in the next year so we will have less maintenance to do. It’s a lot of work to care for this much ground & Karen wants a smaller home (we have 3 bedrooms & 3 baths) to have to keep clean as well but we will never live in a city again if we can avoid it, just a smaller house on a smaller piece of ground.
Dog owners everywhere understand the bond with the ‘wolf’. Have you kept dogs over the years? Any particular breeds?
I love dogs. We had small dogs when I was a kid & canine companionship is the ultimate in friendship in my opinion. I’ve had many dogs through the years, from full bred Irish Setters to one German Sheperd to mixed breed mutts. We recently lost our two Rottweiler mix dogs to old age & probably will adopt an older dog after we move from our ranch because I can’t see me live out my life without a canine friend.
How has father-hood been? How was your relationship with your father and family – did he / they support your music? Anything you would say to young dads?
I am a reluctant parent, meaning I never wanted kids but I happened to fall in love with a woman who is a bit older than myself and she already had three girls so if I wanted her I had to accept her children as well, a package deal so to speak. Later on in the 1990’s we adopted two of our grand daughters, it’s a long convaluted story which I won’t get into here but while it was an extreme challenge to my sanity (I think all parents feel this way at times) they grew up to be wonderful women with careers & I am very proud of them.
My family is a large one, I am number six of ten children & dad was a strict disciplinarian & very Catholic as well. I was a bit rebellious as a teenager, disavowing the church at the age of fourteen & as a result, straining my relationship with my father, but I give him credit for instilling me with a strong work ethic & giving me a chance to develop my artistic abilities both as an upholsterer & drummer. While I think my parents always hoped for the best for all their children, they supported me in my endeavors as best they knew how but my relationship with them was tenuous at best for the rest of their lives.
Since I am a reluctant parent & have not raised any children from infancy (all my kids came into my life above the age of six) I would not be one to give advice to young dads. I will say patience, love & understanding are most important to raising children no matter the age they come into your life. When things get challenging, try to remember what you felt at their age, especially teenagers, it goes a long way to helping them through the changes as they mature.
You mentioned there is a lot of country music in your area. Were you brought up listening to any of the old time US music – Carter Family, Cash, Ernest Tubb etc? I discovered that stuff in the last decade and love it. ( And let’s not forget Wichita Lineman )
Ah, good old country music! Yes, I grew up listening to all the old time country, western, & bluegrass artists, they were the background music of my childhood. While Wichita was a decent size city, it’s main radio market from early AM radio through the FM times of the ’80’s was country programing. We had a radio on at home, in the barbershop where I shined cowboy boots, in the upholstery shop & my parents car. It was everywhere & I still listen to the artists you mentioned along with Dolly, Porter Wagner, a fantastic steel guitar player named Speedy West, guitar greats Roy Clark & Glenn Campell, Dottie West, Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette, bluegrass greats Bill Monroe & The Louvin Brothers & my favorite outlaws Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson. I guess you could say (& you’d be right) I know more about country music than I do about any modern Metal bands haha.
What would you say to yourself when you were young and just starting out playing music? Would you have done anything differently? And what would you say to young musicians starting out now, and what advice would you particularly give to drummers?
I don’t think I would have done things much different accept to maybe get a bit more formal music education, maybe it would have allowed me to translate what I compose in my head into real music. Composing on drums is a bit limited although I can sometimes get it across to musicians who play piano or guitar neither of which I can say I have much knowledge or talent to play. Educating myself on those instruments did nothing but frustrate & befuddle me LOL.
For younger drummers coming up, my only advice is to play what you like & remember to leave spaces for the music to breathe. It’s not advisable to constantly make yourself the star of the show.
Do you have any plans or predictions for 2021?
My only plans for the coming year is for Karen & I to survive as best we can whatever life throws our way.
If you could change the world, in a sentence?
I learned many years ago not to try to predict the future. I only have hope that my fellow humans will develop a tolerance, love & empathy for one another & to view money as a tool to better society as opposed to frivolous opulence.
Thanks Rick! Our thoughts are with you. To end this interview – what message do you have for all the Manilla Road fans out there today?
Even though Manilla Road no longer exists, keep the spirit of Epic Metal alive by continuing to listen to & turning others on to Mark’s music.
May the Lords of Light be with you All!
NOW BUY EVERY MANILLA ROAD ALBUM EVER and RIDDLEMASTER – BRING THE MAGICK DOWN