Photos courtesy of Leather Leone
“Oh, don't worry, I like to talk about myself,” Leather Leone chuckles, her no-bullshit New York accent dominating the fact she's lived in San Francisco's Bay Area since the early 1980s. That's fine by me, because it's her talking – or really, her singing – that matters most. Growing up singing in church and school musicals may have given her a perfect training ground for performin,g but it wasn't until a college friend suggested she join his band that she realized she could wail as well as Ann Wilson, or even better, Bon Scott.
When a career on Broadway was going nowhere fast (“I hit a dead end in New York, doing nothing but getting high”), she headed for California, where a singer-wanted ad nailed to a telephone pole changed her life. Fronting the punk/thrash all-girl upstarts Rude Girl (later Malibu Barbi) during the Bay Area thrash scene's savage salad days and then going on to front power metal powerhouse Chastain (put together by Shrapnel Records' Mike Varney and shred guitar maestro David Chastain of Ohio hard rockers Spike) in the mid-80s put Leather right in the eye of America's emerging extreme music scene. But, while she should have been hailed alongside Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth, she found herself sidelined because she refused to be sexualized.
Leather withdrew herself from the music industry as the new decade dawned, but now she's willing to give it another go. And no, she still won't pose in a bustier.
Noisey: Welcome back! What took you so long, and what made you want to return to the circus?Leather Leone: It came about through when we lost Ronnie James Dio in 2010. I was in Los Angeles hanging out with some friends, just trying to comfort each other during that shitty ass time, and I ran into some people that I used to do music with. Through that, we started saying we should just do something, if for nothing else, for him. I hooked up with Scott Warren and Jimmy Bain, who were in the Dio family, and I put out a record with Sledge Leather called Imagine Me Alive [which also featured ex-Rude Girl drummer Sandy Sledge]. Through all that I'd gotten back in touch with David Chastain, and when the Sledge Leather project did not really take off, he said 'Why don't you give me a call?' I don't really remember it this way, but he said he was thinking more about me doing another solo record, and I was going, 'I don't wanna do a solo record. Everywhere I go everybody is talking to me about you." So, that's how Surrender To No One came to be in 2013.
After two demos and an epic full-length debut (1985's Mystery Of Illusion), which helped put American heavy metal on the map, followed by four more albums,—including the 1990 record For Those Who Dare which came out on Roadrunner imprint R/C Records—you'd had enough. You've previously said that you were told that if you “just got a bit sexier” you would have broken through, was that what pushed you over the edge?
Well, basically at that point I left. I had such an attitude about it, saying "I don't know who the fuck you're talking to," it was really insulting but it was nothing I'd not heard before. I think at that point I had such an ego because I'd done so well with Chastain, it was just a joke. You can see I'm still flabbergasted about it, are you fucking kidding me? Why couldn't I be a female Hetfield? What is the goddamn deal? I heard that quite a bit, hence why I detoured. I really didn't want to compromise.”
What were some of the expectations of you back then as a female rock musician?
Well, I actually started doing some demos for a much bigger band, that was much more commercial and much more into their looks. I was doing these demos and as much as I wanted the gig because I wanted that life I just thought, what am I doing? I'm chasing this bullshit image existence. I don't go around crying "Oh woe is me," because I think image is really important, it's just that I don't understand why. I should be able to put a bag on my head and you should still have the desire to listen to me. It's so boring, the gender issue. Look, I'm not this gorgeous Adonis of a woman, but get over it. I found it fucking insulting because I could sing with the best of them and they threw me in a fucking closet. It wasn't like I was slammed with it in the face every day, although David Chastain does tell me that there were a lot of gigs that did not happen for us because there was a female front. I was totally oblivious to that, he hid it all from me.”
Coming back to heavy metal now do you think the landscape has changed?
Yes, I've been blessed lately as I've been able to meet some of these really amazing women. I just went and hung out with Vicky from The Agonist and I met Kobra [Paige]. I'm old enough to be their mother and I walk into these dressing rooms and they know who I am, they're flipped out that I'm there. I can remember thinking, "Go fucking girl!" They were running the troops. It's weird when people say that to me, but if I made it any easier for these women that are out there just fucking kicking it… back in the 80s I wouldn't see that at all. Back in the 80s that I loved to help the road crew, I'm not a prima donna. I would wrap my scarf around my neck and I'd help them set up the stage and I can remember people saying '"Whoa, isn't that cool, look they've got a chick roadie." And I would just ignore it and be like, "Give me the microphone, I'll show you chick roadie, motherfucker!" It's a good feeling. They said, "Thanks a lot, we listened to you," and I'm like, "What, you're 22!?'" It was cool.”
Fangirl alert, but I certainly looked up to musicians like you, Lita Ford, Vixen. I had all the Kerrang Ladykillers posters on my wall. Later on people questioned my feminism because of it, but I didn't see these women as victims of the 1980s obsession with sexuality, I saw them as women I could look up to, it's an interesting twist, don't you think?
You were looking at them as powerful women and that is so interesting. I tried so fricking hard to get in that magazine. I did photoshoots and everything to be part of Ladykillers but of course I didn't do it their way. I was all horns up and that never got in. When that photo of Lorraine Lewis came out and she was sucking on a lollypop, I can remember looking at David and saying "Call our publicist, make sure he knows I don't want to be part of this." I remember they had me standing at a bed and had someone waving a sheet, this silky thing around me and I was like, "What are we doing? Is this a lingerie advert?"
I was way too tough for that magazine. Initially, it was a sense of power, it was, "Right on, Lita." but then it got… but hey, this is also my attitude, if it is truly in you, it's okay. It's truly in Madonna. It's truly in Rihanna. It's truly in Lita. Some of these women are just really driven that way and it's okay, but for someone like me to come along and create that is just bullshit. When I played at Keep It True in 2011 with Sledge Leather they were saying, "You should go out there with a blonde wig and a bustier," and I was like, why? To be ridiculed? The whole sex thing is so boring to me.
Let's take it back to the 1980s, how did you end up fronting a heavy metal band?
It's freaky how I got into it, because sometimes I don't even know how I was one of the lucky few. I went to school in New York City as I wanted to get into musicals and started thinking, "Oh god, this isn't for me." I had a friend out in Berkeley and she said, "Why don't you come out and see me." Back then, if you were looking for a band, you could make a poster and you would staple it on telephone poles all over the city. I picked one up and it said it was looking for a nail-spitter. The name of the band was Rude Girl, so I called them. The audition was in Haight Ashbury, so I was like , "Oh my god, this is where it all happened in the 60s." I sang Heart's version of Zeppelin's 'Rock N Roll', and they said to me, 'Do you know who Bon Scott is? Can you sing like him?' Through that I got this gig, and then I heard Dio and it was over!
Then it was so different, anyone could just go play anywhere, the days before Metallica got signed, everyone was just around here playing. Everyone was a nobody and could play any club, so I just started doing that. I got spit on, I got stuff thrown at me. It was such a good training ground for me to go, "You know what, watch this shit'." That was when I realized that it didn't matter what I had between my legs, because I was as good as they were, they respected me. I was lucky to be there.”
You've been out of the spotlight since 1990. When not nail-spitting in Rude Girl or Chastain, what were you doing?
I was going through a lot of therapy, it was so frustrating, so depressing. I stopped listening to music, stopped going to shows. It was a weird time for me, but then I got involved in animal medicine. Two things in my life I've always been interested in is music and animals, so I became a vet tech, and then I met my first pitbull and it was over! I started working with them, rescuing them, adopting them, and I went headstrong into animal medicine, which takes up your whole life.
Okay, you've just gone up in our estimation a thousand times. Rescuing dogs and heavy metal – we're done. Is this still your job or is music now a full-time gig?
Oh god yes, Chastain's not touring, there's nothing going on financially. I'm not sure if there will even be another Chastain record. I've hooked up with some other musicians, and I'm not sure if I'm going to try and go solo. Although it's very gratifying, it's also very frustrating, because it's never been important for David to go out and play and I'm the total opposite. I did just get a festival in Chicago for May, the Ragnarökkr Metal Apocalypse, so I just grabbed David Harbour from the Those Who Dare era, so we're gonna go out and play that. It's frustrating for me because I've been gone so long and because I'm not touring with Chastain that's what people wanna see. All the big festivals don't want me, they want me with Chastain, so I'm stuck in a corner.
Especially in today's musical climate where CDs aren't selling and bands need to tour more than ever, right? You just put out a new album with Chastain, We Bleed Metal—who do you think will buy it?
Oh man, yes, when I was in Europe I played three little shows and we lived off T-shirt sales, so yes, it's very frustrating. As for We Bleed Metal? I don't have a crystal ball. Certainly the Chastain following will buy it and I've heard from a lot of people via social networking who heard the "We Bleed Metal" song and said "I've now gone and got your catalogue." We have that basic core of people from back in the day, and now they all run radio stations and write magazines, so I think it is getting picked up by a younger audience. There's always a market for David's kind of guitar playing, his virtuoso guitar. And unfortunately, with all the bullshit that's going on in society, a lot of people are connecting with "We Bleed Metal: because of the Paris thing, so a lot of people are finding it through the landscape of our society, which is horrible, but the songs just seem to have been written at a time that's affecting our community. And then we have idiot Trump over here going just bomb them, go to their homes and bomb them, it's a 12 year old mentality of boy being bigger than boy, it's all testosterone. [Sighs] I don't know what the answer is.