Thomas McRocklin – Exclusive Interview
We Chat to Thomas McRocklin, a former child guitar prodigy.
Thomas McRocklin is a former child guitar prodigy hailing from Newcastle England who has had a modest amount of success in the hard rock music industry. With a string of TV show performances, magazine exclusives, and opening for legendary musician Ozzy Osbourne This man has led quite the rock n’ roll life. Picking up the guitar at the tender age of 4 he quickly became a master of the fret board and by the age of 7 he was ready for the stage. Starting out in pubs and clubs, he wowed the punters with his amazing skills.
McRocklin first caught my eye in the Steve Vai music video for the Audience Is Listening. A feature track on the album Passion And Warfare released in 1990, where he plays the role of a kid version of Steve Vai being introduced by his school teacher to a class full of hyperactive kids. With guitar in hand kid Vai invites his friends up to the top of the class and they go to their instruments. Kid Vai then tells the class that he wrote the song for all his friends and that when he grows up he’s gonna be a famous guitar player, the amps are turned up to 11, the clock on the wall explodes for some reason, and pandemonium begins. It’s an absolutely brilliant and entertaining video. McRocklin gives a great performance as a younger Vai. Youtube then led me to another video of McRocklin this time on a TV show called Little And Large where he absolutely shreds on the guitar playing Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.
This kid was amazing. The level of skill he possessed on the guitar at such a young age blew my mind. He also had a great stage presence you could see passion not only in his playing but in his expressions. After working with Steve Vai he would go on to be the first and youngest person signed to Interscope Records, a huge player in the music industry today. Eventually a band would form around Thomas . Teenagers with amazing talent. Danny Cooksey on lead vocals, Zack Young on bass and backing vocals, Brooks Wackerman on drums, and of course Thomas McRocklin on lead guitar. Put together by John Mc Clane and managed by Steve Vai this band would be called Bad 4 Good. Fun fact Danny Cooksey was the kid with the mullet in Terminator 2 and Brooks Wackerman is now the drummer for the popular metal band Avenged Sevenfold.
They wrote and recorded one album called Refugee and had two music videos. One for their single, a cover of Nineteen by Phil Lynott and one other video they made for their ballad Nothing Great About A Heartache. Refugee is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard and one of my favorites. Its got that signature hard rock sound you can only get from an album of that era. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this album was made by adults because their level of skill and performance isn’t that of your typical teenage band. Unfortunately though the album failed to chart due to the changing nature of the music industry at its time of release but the Nineteen music video was played on heavy rotation on MTV and the band had a huge following in California. When Bad 4 Good ended McRocklin would head back to his native Newcastle England to begin work on his solo album Thomas McRocklin 91-95. This album delivers the same punch as Refugee, especially songs like Lucy’s Breath.
Having always been obsessed with the mixing desk and how things worked behind the scenes, McRocklin would put down the guitar for the next 20 or so years to pursue a career in music production producing for modern artists under a string of different names expanding his musical tastes into the realms of Drum and Bass, Electronic Hip Hop and Rave Beat. Now making a return to playing music, he is back with a fresh and diverse spin on instrumental guitar. Fully in command of the helm putting his expert knowledge of both production and guitar playing to use on an E.P. that we can expect to be truly original and unlike anything you’ve heard before in instrumental guitar. The internet could only tell me so much about this amazing mans life and as a fan I wanted to know more so I reached out to him to try and fill in the blanks and give the fans the answers they so desperately seek.
What was it like playing in bars, pubs, and clubs at such a young age were you ever nervous?
Uhm not really. When I was going on stage and doing stuff there was never nerves. I mean the playing side of things when I was a kid I think because I’d spent so much time playing you know everyday when I was like 7 or 8 onward I was probably playing about 10 hours a day. So playing at home or on a stage, it was cool either way to get feedback off the audience it never felt like a big deal there were definitely no nerves coming though.
So there was never nerves around drunk people or anything. It was just completely normal?
Not at all. It was always those kind of environments that were really good fun as well because when people see this little kid for the first time going bazerk everybody would typically going be nuts and stuff. I used to like the energy of it. I remember a couple of times there was a classic pub I used to play in, it got pulled down many years ago but you know the hat I used to wear back in the day, a good little trick I used to like doing in the second time I’d play in the evening after everyone had a few drinks was take the hat around and collect all these five or ten pound notes fill the hat up with money, unknown to my father but most of the time I’d get chucked out. Another common way of doing it was that I’d be waiting in the car and then my dad would have the amp set up. Then we would kinda find the right moment then I’d come into the pub or club and typically get away with about 10 minutes shredding and then I’d be outta there.
So how did this lead to TV appearances? Was someone from TV just in a bar one night and said I want this kid for a show?
Yeah I think it was a bit of a gradual thing in the early days. There was a lot of local newspapers that featured me which led to a local TV news spot. I remember I was like 6 or 7 the first time a news team came with full on cameras and makeup and everything. My dad was probably more concerned than I was. After that I started doing TV and a couple of shows were I’d have to travel down to London for and it kinda just went from there.
Was little and large your first TV appearance?
No I don’t think so I think that may have been one of the more bigger appearances at that time. Before that there was a ton of news segments. It was all at that time where nothing was really archived like it is today, everything was directly aired so unless somebody recorded it on a VHS they’re just gone but there was a kind of flurry of TV appearances at that time. Another major appearance I had was on the Disney Club.
You where on the Disney Club! Haha! Wow. What was it like going onto the Disney Club being a hard rock guy and just shredding?
Yeah they had a whole audience of like 5 to 10 year olds and I had a Marshall Stack so they probably didn’t like it, haha but I liked being on the show. It was good.
So tell me how did you meet Steve Vai?
I met Steve Vai at the Monsters Of Rock at Donnington ’88. I think it’s called Download now Steve would have been playing for David Lee Roth back then which was really cool cause I was a massive Roth fan back then even to this day Skyscraper is one of my favourite albums.
Oh cool what do you think of Van Halen today?
The newer modern stuff I don’t really listen to but I don’t actually listen to a lot of guitar music these days the closest I’d probably listen to is like Tron. Have you ever heard of Tron?
They’re an instrument sort of bass band. Most of the stuff I tend to listen to now would be Electronic, Bass, Rave Beat, and instrumental Hip Hop.
So you’re more into the more modern day stuff now more so than hard rock?
Yeah I mean I do like it and there are some great guitar players out there I just think instrumental guitar playing in general compared to back then its just on a different league now. Everybody’s a lot more creative now it’s a lot more mainstream and accepted now. Back then Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen, it was such a small pool but now it’s a different ball game entirely but Van Halen stuff I don’t listen to much now but I don’t really listen to that kind of playing in general. What I listen to it’s full on kinda djenty or the completely opposite direction like hip hop and I think its more that stuff that comes through in the playing now. You know?
I noticed on some of your newer tracks there’s a kinda Dubstep vibe to it.
I spent a lot of time producing Drum and Bass and got into production for other people, mixing and then later mastering.
Is there any artist we would have heard of that you produced?
Well I did it all under different names, it’s all quite anonymous. In some ways the McRocklin name disappeared and this other name came along, which is just for the production but at one point up on till about two years ago, I was mixing for people every night especially mastering, that became but you learn a lot of stuff and with the E.P. I’m working on now it’s kinda cool to have all the stuff that I’ve learned to be able to have an idea sound wise and being able to execute it without relying on someone else.
So how did bad 4 good come about?
So when I was going back and forth doing shows for Ibanez and some of the other brands at that time, a guy named John Mc Clane seen me play at a NAMM show he was the guy who would have me signed with Interscope records i was the first person to sign with Interscope so eventually a band would form around that. So the next NAMM show I did after that Brooks Wackerman was at it and saw me play. He was speaking to my dad, he was wearing a John Bonham shirt. You could tell he was a drummer so he was the first to join and then after that we were looking around for a bass player, the G.I.T. scene was the still huge at that time everybody that wanted to be somebody would go there. We had some ads up in G.I.T. and one of the guys that came forward was Zack who became our bass player and then we got Danny our singer. What kind of happened was that we made the record and then just the band being together we all started kinda writing our own stuff and started to dig our own stuff. It’s funny because looking back on it now they’re great tracks and I probably appreciate the album more now than I did back then but back then we preferred to play our own stuff like we would play the tracks when we toured and stuff but we always got a kick out of playing the stuff we wrote ourselves.
So why do you think you guys were not as successful as you should have been?
I think the record is the reason. I think it sold a hundred and odd thousand copies, which isn’t huge but the buzz around the band in California was. The album unfortunately launched at the perfect time to not go big because you had Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and all these other guys coming out. The scene just changed over night from like rock stuff to grunge.
I think its a fascinating time in music because of the change. Seeing glam and hardrock phased out in favor of grunge, boybands, and gangster rap.
Yeah I know its crazy actually. A short time after that I got really into Dr. Dre and a lot of the other rap acts which where also on Interscope. At the time Deathrow Records was Interscopes thing so I used to always find it really cool when I’d go to Interscope Headquarters and you see people like Snoop Dogg hanging out. So for me even though I was living with Steven, hanging out with all these guitar guys, they were just regular guys but then you see people like Dr. Dre and Snoop and its like wow.
So where you ever inspired to make a rap song?
No but I did know every lyric from the House of Pain records haha.
So why did you put down guitar and walk away from fame?
When I was living with Steven I was always more interested in learning the console. At the mother ship there was an awesome desk kinda of bespoke with really a great outboard and gear and stuff and I really enjoyed that side of things, hanging in the studio with guys like Jimmy Iovine a legendary producer and just seeing him work going from takes to something that sounded great. I was always fascinated by that so when I came back to Newcastle going from getting my first 8 track, getting a sequencer and a sampler, that was it. It just took over the guitar and I gradually more and more wanted to produce music like Drum and Bass , House ,Trance kinda stuff
That’s pretty cool. So your solo album 91 to 95, how did that come about?
It’s a collection of songs I was working on from 91 to 95. Most of them were from 91 to 93 from when I had that 8 track. They where recorded in a local studio called Trinity Heights. There was a guy there called Fred Purser who helped out on it. Songs like Heather and The Mountain I kinda had the main melody for that one for quite a while and one night it turned into a complete track. Lucy’s Breath was another one of those tracks. I had a jam with a drummer called Kev Waise and he said play something over this and he opened with that sort of tom beat bum ba bum ba. We did it in one take so every part is the same as that jam.
Can you tell me anything about the Steve Vai music video The Audience Is Listening?
Yeah there was more creepy crawleys, spiders, and snakes on standby. Yeah I wasn’t big on those but no it was really cool. It was a good experience having to learn that track. I got to listen to the track before its release and have it on cassette. It’s a great track but its from an awesome album. Its one of my favorite records, as it is for a lot of people. Such a classic album. The video was shot down in Florida at a school, a legit school, we shot the video on a Sunday.
Wait a minute that wasn’t a set? So you had spiders, snakes, and clocks exploding off walls, you guys must have wrecked the place!
Yeah I mean that clock explosion, that was a complete surprise to me, they didn’t tell me they were going to blow up the clock. They just told me to play in front of the sound, play the track. So you can see in the video my reaction of shock.
Did your friends and family know how big you where getting in America?
Not really, not so much I mean some of them had a bit of an idea but just because back in that era there was no web, no Facebook, no way of checking what was going on.
So you could come back to a relatively normal life when you came home?
That’s it exactly. So when I got home I could go out and do normal things, hang out with friends and stuff.
So what does the future hold for Thomas McRocklin? Whats next?
At the moment I’m working on my new E.P. I’m in the process of finishing off the writing. I’m going to be tracking drums very soon and finishing off some guitar parts then I’ll be launching it. I’m really looking forward to playing again. The first couple of months have been frustrating. When you have ideas you wanna execute and your fingers aren’t there because you’ve taken so much time off its frustrating but once you get past that stage you can start writing and expressing yourself. I think over the last year my playing has changed a lot so I can stand out. When you approach playing with the same shapes as everyone is using, its hard to get away from that. So I’ve spent my time doing the same kind of scales but changing my box shape to a penatonic which gives me more options to go down the fret board. I’m spending a lot of time rearranging default habits, even the way I pick now is really different I’ve gone from a traditional Dunlop pick to a Prime Tone jazz 3xl shape. Some things people find quirky, like really digging at the strings to make the springs wobble, some people look for ways to get away from that happening. Where as I emphasize it.
I appreciate you talking to me. Thank you for giving me your time.
You’re more than welcome.
For more information on upcoming gigs and events visit https://www.facebook.com/mcrocklin/