Interview – Vardis at Wildfire 2016

Steve Zodiac (Photo: Austin Avart)
Steve Zodiac (Photo: Austin Avart)

Renewed and reinvented, classic rock act Quo Vadis returned a couple of years ago as the rebadged Vardis featuring original member Steve Zodiac – who had spent the intervening years working at a college, hiding his filthy rocking past from all and sundry! Fortunately now, though, they’ve returned and we had a chance for a blether before they played on the third day of this year’s Wildfire Festival.

Steve kicked things off with a little bit of history about the band. “We started off in 1973 as a band called Quo Vadis,” he explains, “We played the clubs in the North East, Manchester and the North West… Birmingham for about four or five years. We made an EP on the back of the post-punk, indie scene as it was pretty big in those days to do your own thing. We got a distribution through Pinnacle Records and it went in to the independent charts for about 24 weeks – before there was ever a metal chart. Then it went in and out of the metal charts for four or five years, and during that time we got a record deal and put three albums out.

“Played a lot of shows back in the day,” he continues, “continued for about five or six years and the band at the time – not these guys – decided we’d had enough.”

Modern technology, though, aided in resurrecting the band. As Steve goes on to tell us, “A couple of years ago I got contacted through social media even though I’m not really active on it on a personal level. I’ve always gone by the pseudonym Steve Zodiac, which people at work didn’t know me as. It would be a bit weird on my door – ‘Steve Zodiac, Head of Department’. Sounds like something out of Mission: Impossible!

“Someone found me on LinkedIn – I was working in education at that time at the City of Westminster College. I was asked if we’d like to get a reunion show together and that’s what we did. We enjoyed it so much, we decided to try another two or three shows.”

As well as changing personnel over time, the name of the band changed as well. “The original name, Quo Vadis, come from the Latin for ‘where are you going?’,” explains Steve, “There was an old Robert Taylor film with the same name I remember seeing when I was a kid and the name just stuck. For the time, Status Quo were quite a heavy band and really big and I just thought… you know, there’s only one Quo. You’re either Quo or you’re not in terms of heavy rock and we weren’t! So out of respect, we dropped the Quo. And added an ‘r’ into the name!”

Funnily enough Quo member Andy Bown guested on Vardis’s second album, The World’s Insane, adding some keyboards. Steve went on to detail the more recent line-up changes. He, Joe Clancy and Terry Horbury recorded Red Eye through the latter half of 2015, but Horbury wasn’t going to see it released.

“After thirty years of not performing or making records, we had a chance to make a new album but late in the recording Terry passed away. Joe and I decided to continue on through this difficult period. We went dark for a couple of months, but SPV still wanted to put the album out. Joe had worked with Martin before and he agreed to keep the wheels on the wagon, have some fun and… that’s why we’re here.”

At this point Martin chipped in. “At this point I’ve done six or seven gigs so far – it’s all pretty new to me – but the fans have welcomed me. It’s like a family. Everyone’s been supportive and the fans have been great. Not once has anybody told me I’m not as good as the last bloke!”

“The live shows have been great,” says Steve, “there’s a mix of old fans and new, but the expressions on their faces are the same – they’re really enjoying it. There might be a man or woman stood there who bought 100MPH back in 1980 and who saw us then, but right next to them is a teenager who wouldn’t have even been born at the time.”

“We’ve even had fans who bought the albums back in the day, but who hadn’t seen us until now,” adds Martin. “People coming up to us saying they’d waited 35 years to see the band play live. It’s a privilege to be part of that.”

Things do seem to be going well. Red Eye received good reviews, good enough that the band have more plans. “There are plans for a second album, and maybe a live album as well,” Steve tells me. “Also some shows and maybe tours for next Spring. All will be announced on our website –! I’m lucky enough to be working with two guys that I get on really well with and we have a great chemistry. They’re superb musicians and when you get this kind of mixture, playing our music and so on, it’s addictive. The adrenaline kicks in and we’re one gelled noise machine.”

Given the large gap between the band calling it a day and then being asked to write a new album, I was interested in knowing if Red Eye had given Steve a chance to use material he’d had written all those years ago that never saw the light of day… or was this new album completely from scratch?

Joe Clancy (Photo: Austin Avart)
Joe Clancy (Photo: Austin Avart)

“Well, I’ve never stopped writing music and poetry and lyrics over all those years,” he tells me, “tunes and riffs and bits and bobs. I didn’t really play electric guitar over all those years, but I always played on my old Martin and National guitars in the house to keep my hand in. Ideas always came over the years, but I never had a chance or reason to make the most of them. I always said that I’d never do this purely to play old stuff. I love what we did, we have a unique Vardis sound, but unless I had the passion to create something new, there’d be no point.”

“Even playing the old songs is fresh. We’re rediscovering the sound and putting a new slant on it,” he continues, “We’re still developing it even though we’ve had thirty years out of it as a band.”

At this point, my son was getting a little bored and starting to take photos of the band (I warned them I’d use them!) so we decided to begin wrapping things up. I had one final pair of questions. First off – what’s the maddest memory you have relating to a gig?

Steve came back with a great story – one of the best I’ve ever had as a response to this question. I told it to my wife when I got home and she loved it and I’m very happy to be able to share it with you and I hope I do it justice second hand. Steve really knows how to tell a tale…

“You remember the film Spinal Tap? Well, now you look at it and it’s funny but I remember going to see it on the King’s Road in Chelsea with the band when it first came out and we honestly thought it was a documentary – because we knew people like that. The guys in Saxon… we all behaved like that. We all had stupid ideas we put into place to try and be different… I have so many stories about failed stage props!

“I started Vardis about the time I left school. Rock was everywhere. Pop music was rock music. I went to Leeds to see David Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour. It was so theatrical with the performance and even how he came on stage. Me and my mates had never seen a stroboscope before, and they had one one flashing slowly. Mick Ronson came on and they did “Suffragette City” with Bowie walking on a bit later to a second cheer, all with this weird strobe look… We just had to get a strobe.

“It was before the disco era. Nobody knew what a strobe was, none of the shops had them. This was 1970 or 1971. So we sat down and tried to figure out how it worked… and make our own.”

At this point, the other two members of Vardis and myself start laughing. We just know this is going to turn out badly, but we don’t know how… and amazingly it’s a story that neither Martin nor Joe have heard before. Steve continues…

“We got a wooden box and screwed a light fitting in it. We put a 200W bulb in it. We got a fan, a cooling fan, took the motor off it, suspended it and put a wooden disc on it [the motor] with a hole in it. We put all this together, and switched it on… and… woah. It’s working. It’s flickering just like the one at the show! It’s going to be fantastic!

Martin Connolly (Photo: Austin Avart)
Martin Connolly (Photo: Austin Avart)

“We had this show at Bottom Boat Working Men’s Club in Batley or somewhere coming up and we just had to use it at this show. When we got there we put it at the front of the stage, but so that people didn’t come in and go ‘what the f*ck’s that?’, we got a pot of black paint. Ronnie, I’m sure it was him, was told to dab it with black paint so people wouldn’t notice it before we go on.

“So the show’s about to start and the announcer gets on the microphone. ‘For your entertainment… Vardis!’ and the house lights go down. We switch the strobe on. Flashflashflash… fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. We stride on stage and we’re giving it some, cutting all these poses thinking we’re all Mick Ronson and David Bowie. We finish the song and the house lights come on.

“I’m looking at the bassist – covered in black spots. I look at the drummer – black spots. Then I look at the audience. All these old grannies, sat with their bingo cards… black spots everywhere! It was only a small club and there was paint on the walls, on the ceiling…

“We got paid off from that gig. They were furious. They had to give out all new bingo cards as they’d all been marked!

“That’s why we believed Spinal Tap was real. We used to do things that would kill you. We had a roadie who used to test if the electrics were live by licking his finger and touching the wires. Mains electric! He’d jump up in the air!”

Finally, I asked the guys to name a band they’d recommend that we’ve probably not heard of before. This resulted in a lot of discussion with them eventually settling on a band from Wrexham who had supported them on their homecoming show in Wakefield last December – Defy All Reason. We have actually featured this bunch before, when they were crowdfunding for their debut album early last year, but we’ll definitely be checking them out again courtesy of Vardis!

All photos by Austin Avart, and kindly mugged for him by the band!

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