Back To The Past (34):

Sometimes we bump into a metal band that sounds so cool, you think it’s strange that they didn’t become bigger. MALTEZE would be a very nice exmaple here. They recorded a self-financed mini album called “We Came 2 Rock” in ’87 and a couple of years later, they released the CD “Count Your Blessings” (’90) on a small label, called Gold Records. That was all we knew about this band, before we started our search for Barbara Maltese, their frontlady. What we found out was really amazing! Read about the second full length album, called “Forever”, an album that we never heard (or even saw) before and find out that Barbara is still ative in the music scene today. All the memories she had about MALTEZE were discussed, but of course we also asked Barbara about her future plans and current projects. “Count Your Blessings” people, because this is the previously untold story of MALTEZE…….

When did MALTEZE get together as a band?
Barbara Maltese: “I moved out to L.A. around 1985 with the producer of the band, John Pillay ‘JP’. He began writing all this material for me, since I really wanted to sing hard rock. We put together a line up of David Williams on guitar, Bryant Simpson on bass and Steve Swartout on drums, and recorded an LP, “We Came 2 Rock”, which was completed in 1987. It was our first recording: some kind of a mix of blues and rock and it was fun. But, afterwards, I realized that I wanted to perform something louder and harder. I wanted to try heavy metal. It took a couple of years to find the right players, select the right songs and get the money together to record the “Count Your Blessings” CD. JP was a perfectionist and we would spend a lot of time in the studio before he was satisfied. So, I guess you could say that by 1990, we had the heavy metal version of the band intact.”

Did you play in other bands before MALTEZE?
“After high school, I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston for a couple of semesters. I learned how to do orchestrations and arranging. I originally went there to study to be a music teacher. All my life I had played piano. I studied classical and jazz. I played piano for the choruses and musicals since 4th grade. Since I was one of the only pianists in our school, I always had to be the accompanist. They never let me sing!! So, when I went to college, I had a chance to really dig in and see if I could sing. I used to lock myself away in the practice rooms for hours, singing at the top of my voice to see which notes I could hit, and how much power I had. It was exciting! So exciting, in fact, that when I ran out of money for college, I stayed in Boston, worked as a waitress and got into a hard rock cover band for a while, called TIME SQUARE. After that band fell apart, I went back home to upstate New York, got into another band, SHIVER (we opened up for TALAS, which included Billy Sheehan), and I worked as an intern at a recording studio. Then, I got a call from JP, who remembered me from Boston. He asked me to record some songs for him in California, so I moved out to L.A. to pursue my singing career.”

How did you get together with the rest of the band members?
“We all kinda met thru the L.A. Music Connection classifieds ads. Everyone had different backgrounds and experiences. We had different players all the time. Trying to find the right musician for your band is like trying to find a member of a family. You have to go thru a lot of people before you find the person who has the musical skill level, dedication, had the right image, similar vision, stamina, sense of humor, patience and is willing to put everything they have into achieving the same goals as everyone else. It’s a tall order to fill. We’d call people from the classifieds, they’d come over to the rehearsal studio, and we’d play together to see if it felt right. It was a long process. This is why it took almost three years to release our CD after doing the first LP.”

Who choose the bandname MALTEZE or is it just named after your own name, Barbara Maltese?
“I think it was my idea. I didn’t want to use my full name, like PAT BENATAR. “Barbara Maltese” just didn’t have a good “ring” to it, you know? So, we talked about using my last name, but with a “Z” to make it look stronger. My family is from the island of Malta, so it only made sense to come up with a logo which incorporated the Maltese cross. I have it tattooed on my arm. One day, in a convenience store, a little old man saw my tattoo and told me he was one of the few remaining “Knights of Malta.” I thought that was pretty cool.”

How would you describe your music?
“Heavy metal with female vocals.”

Who were your influences?
”My absolute favorites were JUDAS PRIEST and IRON MAIDEN. Period. I LOOO-VED them! I also liked BLACK SABBATH, AEROSMITH, AC/DC and QUEENSRYCHE. But Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson just blew me away!!! Unfortunately, there were no chick singers that I could relate to. It was a male-dominated scene.”

Why is it impossible to still find a copy of your LP “We Came 2 Rock”?
“We maybe ordered five hundred albums. When they were gone, we never reordered them and we just moved on. If I’d known how many people would’ve wanted them fifteen years later, I would’ve ordered a truckload of ‘em! Geez, I don’t even know where the masters are!”

What can you tell us about your outfit THE TIPSY GYPSIES?
“Omigod! THE TIPSY GYPSIES!!! This was a rockin’ blues band that I put together when I moved to Austin around 1994. We played a bunch of clubs doing cover songs.”

We first heard of you through the CD “Count Your Blessings” on Gold Records, in 1990. In what way does it differ from your first LP?
“Count Your Blessings” was a balls-to-the-wall heavy metal CD with awesome players and songs. “We Came 2 Rock” was a funky, blues rock album. The players were good, the songs were OK, but keep in mind, this was the first recording I’d ever made. I was a virgin in the recording studio. I really didn’t know much of anything about mic technique or ad libbing back in those days!”

What was the reaction of the press like?
“They didn’t know what to make of it. There were no other females that I knew of singing heavy metaL (other than DORO). It was a male-dominated scene, and our CD was basically ignored. The scene in L.A. back then was heavily into glam. We did get a lot of really good live performance reviews.”

How did the CD sell?
“My main focus was sending cassettes out to radio stations, and concentrating on booking gigs for the band. I really didn’t know much about marketing or the music industry in general. I left a lot of the biz up to Gold Records, (which was a big mistake). I have no idea how many units sold, and how much money exchanged hands. I don’t remember ever receiving any money for CD sales. I’m blown away, years later, seeing “CYB” for sale on the internet!”

I can’t remember, that I’ve ever seen a review in the European music press. Did you get many reactions from abroad?
“For the LP, no. As I mentioned, it was not promoted. But for the CD… We got on playlists in Japan (BURRN! Magazine did a review) and there were telephone interviews I did with Metal Hammer, Germany. They awarded the CD with a “6” which is the highest score (and only awarded 2-3 times per year). Europe and Japan treated us like a major heavy metal band, and it felt great. We really were hoping to get a tour and go overseas.”

Why did you record “Blessed Are The Strong” twice on the CD?
“We had some extra time left on the CD and JP thought it would be a good idea to do an instrumental “reprise” of that particular song. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the production is different on the “reprise” version.”

When you take a look at some of the lyrics, songtitles and the golden cross in your logo, you might think that MALTEZE is a white metal band. Please respond to this....
“There were basically three of us who wrote lyrics: JP, Steve Cenker (the guitarist) and myself. JP was into “dark” things, Steve was into headbanging lyrics, and I was very much going through a spiritual growth period, reading a lot of literature on past lives and looking for answers. On the contrary, a lot of the lyrics that JP wrote were very dark. Sometimes to the point of making me uncomfortable. He poked fun at the “light”, whereas I was totally opposite. Maybe that’s why the music worked. In the same vein, maybe that’s why we’re not together anymore. The gold cross was done by the record company, when they remanufactured the CD for distribution in Europe. They picked out the colors without consulting us. But, we liked it… It looked very classy and strong.”

Can you tell us a bit about your live shows?
“We had fun and we were very loud with Marshall stacks. We played only one set of music. Back then in Los Angeles, the promoters always booked at least three bands per night. So, we never got to play more than an hour. We would start out with a dark stage, with fog filling the entire stage. Sometimes, we would have lasers, too. When the lights came up, we would start to kick ass. We moved around the stage with lots of energy. People used to tell me, that I was very dramatic. I used to break a hand-mirror during “Count Your Blessings”, when I sang the lines, “Aim the gun at the mirror, ‘cause the mirror never lies…” The club owners hated that, because pieces of glass would fly everywhere, and they were afraid of the liability involved! The way I look at it is, if you’re going to tell a story, you might as well make it as big as you can for people. There’s no sense in going to a show where the vocalist just stands there. Kris Marxx, our bassist, always reminded me of Steve Harris from IRON MAIDEN, because he would put his foot up on the monitor and stand there…rockin’. Steve Cenker, one of the guitarists used to grit his teeth, bang his head and wail on guitar. I always thought Steve looked like Mel Gibson with long hair! Lol! Then there was Masami Fujimaki, an incredibly talented guitarist, that possessed a world-class confidence that exuded out to the audience. Masami would have a cig hanging from his lips, casually move to the front of the stage, and then proceed to play like RITCHIE BLACKMORE. We all pretty much wore black leather and heavy jewelry, except for our drummer, Mike Voss. Mike would usually wear a black t-shirt with a skull, or no shirt at all. He could do this, because he was a construction worker and had a great body! I was proud to be the only girl in a kick ass band of talented, good-looking men!”

Any particular show, you have fond memories about?
“Steve and I would have this game, that we would play after our performances. We would try to soak each other with water. I remember one time, we were chasing each other up and down the hallways in this club, only to end up getting completely soaked. It was hysterical. I think it started, because we used to squirt water at one another on stage. There was really nothing Steve could do about it on stage, but look out…payback time after the show! There were times that I wanted to go hide immediately, after we played!”

Did you support any big names or play at huge clubs?
“We only played small clubs. The biggest name we ever opened for was HELLION.”

Are there any nice or funny stories about life on the road with MALTEZE, that you want to share with our readers?
“It seemed like it was never really fun, unless we were up on the stage. It was more like a period of “weirdness”. I remember the gigs were few and far between, with lots of drama, setbacks, frustration and drugs around me. I remember, when Masami was in the hospital for chickenpox, and we had a show to do at the Troubadour. We decided to use a friend to play guitar. We were all onstage, waiting to start playing, and this guitarist was in the dressing room, belligerent and drunk off his ass. I’ll never know how we made it through that show. There was a reviewer there that night, and we got a good review, so I guess it wasn’t all that bad. I remember a fist fight at a club on the Sunset Strip, because the owner of the record company said some things that someone didn’t like. The club owner locked the record company owner in the club’s office! When they finally let him out, the bouncer “escorted” the record company exec to the limo and punched him before letting him go! I remember being in the record company’s limo, drinking Dom Perignon, in a traffic jam that was so bad, that we were afraid we were going to miss our gig. When we pulled into the club parking lot, there was a full-on riot happening… People running everywhere, fists flying. We pulled up, took one look around and split. If we had been there on time, we may have gotten hurt! I remember a fist fight outside of one of our favorite clubs between a bouncer and our record company guy, again!! People never really liked this guy. He dressed very flamboyantly, had a loud speaking voice and some people perceived him as being very pushy. I can’t fault him. He was just doing the best he could for us. I remember the disappointment I felt, when Doc McGhee (manager of BON JOVI) and Ritchie Sambora came to check out our band, and the club wouldn’t let them in!!! They said there were too many people already in the club!”

Did you have any examples? Or do you think that MALTEZE was quite unique?
“Gold Records liked us, when they signed us. But after the CD came out, they kept pestering me to change the way I dressed onstage. They wanted me to be more “feminine”, like STEVIE NICKS or MADONNA, because they sold records. They even wanted me to get a breast enlargement. I said “Fuck that! It’s not all about how I look. My voice should’ve been enough to sell the band!” I got so pissed off, that I cut off all my hair, so that it ended up being only a few inches long, spiky, bleached blonde. It kinda looked like Brigitte Nielson’s hair (Remember her? She was married to Sylvester Stallone). So, I had the record company trying to tell me how to dress, and I had JP in the studio trying to tell me how to sing every note. I was getting pushed from all sides.”

Did you record anything after “Count Your Blessings”? Perhaps for a next release??!?
“We started working on our next CD almost immediately after “CYB” was done. We recorded about eight songs, but most of them are not salvageable.”

After this amazing album, we never heard anything at all from MALTEZE again. When did the band fall apart and what exactly caused this split?
“Drugs. Plain and simple. JP got heavily into drugs. He would conduct a recording session all day while I worked a day job. I would go directly over to the studio after work, and listen to what was recorded that day, and realize that there was so much drugs going on, that none of the work that got recorded was worth saving…out of tune guitars…all kinds of crap. After $10,000, I pulled the plug. I kicked him out of my life, paid the studio the $10,000 and got the master tapes, eventually moving to Austin. I imagine we could have kept the band together, but JP really was the main producer and writer for the group. I just needed a break. I was busted financially and emotionally. As a group, we were so fed up with JP, the record company, the frustration was enough for us to quit. We never formally broke up the band, we just kind of drifted apart.”

Do you know what the former band members did after they left the band? Maybe you are still in touch with any former band members of MALTEZE??
“Steve Cenker is still playing his heart out. He’s with a band called the SAM MORRISON BAND [] and doing pretty well in L.A. area. Masami Fujimaki is in Los Angeles, and still playing music. He goes under the name of Sammy Fujimaki now. Last I heard from Kriss Marx. He was back home in Cleveland playing in a local band. Mike Voss is somewhere in Georgia, with his own construction company. He sold his drums a long time ago, and is a songwriter now. We used to play with a guitarist named Robert Wright (for a short while) and he just emailed me recently. What a surprise, when I visited his website! The guy has some amazing artwork! As for JP, I wouldn’t be surprised, if he were dead.”

What did you do, after MALTEZE disbanded? Did you start a solo career?
“I sang back ups in a friend’s band in Los Angeles. At the same time, I put together a blues cover band with old friend David Williams, called the L.A. BLUES PROJECT. It was short-lived. The good thing about it, is that I met Kevin Higgins at our first gig and eventually moved to Austin with him.”

In 1999, you return with a new band, called COSMIC DUST DEVILS. What kind of music are you playing with that band?
“Kevin and I formed COSMIC DUST DEVILS in 1999. It is what people call “GrooveGrass” or “Farm to Market Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It’s not exactly country and it’s not exactly rock. It’s somewhere in-between. I guess you could say, it’s Texas music or alternative country.”

I guess that this is really something different than what you did with MALTEZE?
“I discovered that I have a wide range of vocal capabilities. I enjoy singing all styles of music. When I was with MALTEZE, I was limited to heavy metal. These days, I share the stage with Kevin, who is the main songwriter for the group. He has written some songs for me to sing, which are very strong, lyrically and melodically. I’m not bragging. I’m rather surprised by the response I get. People usually are moved to standing ovations when I perform these days. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before! What’s really weird is that everyone keeps comparing me to JANIS JOPLIN (I wonder, if she’s taken over my body? Lol!). The passion is still in me, even through the genre is different. And I believe my voice has grown and matured, to the point of where I think it is stonger and more versatile than ever before! Life is good!”

Did you already release any material with them and are you still recognised as the former frontlady of MALTEZE every now and then or not?
“COSMIC DUST DEVILS formed, when Kevin was recording his solo CD, “Dark Side Of The Barn”. I helped out by doing some orchestrations, singing backups and playing keyboards. It was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. The musicians, who performed on the CD were interested in playing the songs live, so we put a group together and played many, many gigs in the past three years around Texas. We just finished our first band CD, called “Cosmic Dust Devils”. It’s available for sale off our website I was surprised when you contacted me to do this interview, and that people are still interested in MALTEZE after all these years!! MALTEZE never achieved any amount of “fame” or recognition until now - fifteen years later!!”

What’s your best memory about being in MALTEZE?
“Being picked up in the record company’s limo and taken to a gig on Sunset Blvd. It really felt like we were on our way…”

And what is your favorite song? Mine would be the mighty title track “Count Your Blessing”, by the way.
“ “CYB” was definitely a favorite of mine, too. It was a challenge to sing, and performing it live made me feel powerful. I also have an attachment to “Too Late.” A friend of mine told me about how in a past life she died in the San Francisco earthquake. Those words wrote themselves. “Borrowed Time” is another favorite. I was missing my grandfather, who had passed away years ago, when I realized how important it was to treasure each day and those words wrote themselves, too!”

Are you still in COSMIC DUST DEVILS nowadays?
“Very happily a member! The band is a lot of fun, and we travel everywhere around Texas. There’s talk of us coming to Europe, maybe in 2003, since we are getting a lot of airplay in Europe.”

Do you play in any other bands, besides this band or not?
“COSMIC DUST DEVILS keep me very busy. Sometimes I think about doing a solo album, and have been putting some ideas aside for that day…”

Do you still play keyboards or doesn’t this fit in the sound of COSMIC DUST DEVILS?
“Yes, I still play keyboards. I don’t play them live (I will as soon as I get my gear updated). Right now, I’m learning mandolin and dulcimer.”

What’s it like to be contacted by a Dutch magazine, who still knows you from your days in MALTEZE? Weren’t you surprised at all?
“Yes, I was very surprised. I’ve learned that I’ve forgotten a lot of things about my past. It seems like those years went by very fast. There’s some sadness attached to the fact that now I think about, “what if…”. There’s some regrets, that we didn’t realize how good we really were, and should have worked harder at keeping the band together. It’s very bittersweet.”

Our magazine supports female musicians in the (hard) rock and (heavy) metal scene. Do you think, that women still need this support?
“I used to think that gender made a difference, when it came to music. That being in a male-dominated scene was difficult to break into. But this way of thinking just gave me a crutch to lean on, when I needed an excuse as to why we weren’t more successful in those days. Don’t worry about it, it’s all about money. The suits can take anyone, male or female and make them a star. The main thing to focus on is are you happy doing what you’re doing? Because if you are and if you’re good at it, the right people will notice. Then you may have a chance to become successful, if you can find the money or resources to help you get your music to your listening audience. Know your audience. Find ways to reach them. Do some soul-searching and decide what your definition is of success. In my opinion, it’s best to follow your passion. Be happy now doing what you’re doing, or get out of it. Life is too short. I think it was an AEROSMITH song, that talked about life being a journey, not a destination. Good words to live by…”

Do you have other interests besides music?
“Well, we live on a 150-acre ranch in Texas, on a lake. We are caretakers here during the week, which leaves us time to travel on the weekends. I try to keep up on political and environmental issues. I think it’s time that this country starts taking a 3rd party seriously. I’m sure if there’s a war on Iraq, I’ll be involved in anti-war campaigns. When I’m home, I love to cook. I’m a health-freak, so I like to make vegetarian food. I also like to ride horses (there are two here on the ranch), we have three cats that we play with, I like to read, canoe, and I have a white ’82 Corvette, that I like to drive when the weather’s nice!”

To what music do you listen to nowadays?
“I like GEOFF TATE’s new CD. I love anything by MOTHER’S FINEST (that woman can sing!!), and there’s a band here, called CROSS CANADIAN RAGWEED - that’s quite good. BILLY JOE SHAVER is another Texas artist. His son Eddy played in BILLY JOE’s band until his death just recently. Eddy kicked ass! I listen to all genres, but I don’t particularly care for rap music.”

What are your plans for the future?
“I’m going to continue playing with the COSMIC DUST DEVILS. We’re breaking out regionally, playing everywhere around Texas and surrounding states next year. I’d like to write some songs. I’d like to record my solo CD someday soon. Maybe we’ll see you in Europe this year!”

Would you ever consider a MALTEZE reunion, if they would ask you for it?
“That’s a tough one....maybe so. You can’t really go back, but it might be fun to play real fucking loud again!”

Is there anything that you want to add to this interview?
“I think I’ve about covered it all! Good questions!”

Do you have any personal messages for our readers? The last words are for you…..
“Live in the moment. Have fun, no matter what you do. If you are unhappy with your life, your job, your boyfriend, whatever… No one can change it, but you. Life is too short to fuck around doing stuff you hate. And along the way, try doing something nice for other people, when you can. We’re all in this together!”

Interview by: Toine van Poorten/copyright Metal Maidens.