Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nita Strauss - Much More Than A Maiden - The Rock Guitar Daily Interview

Nita Strauss has been a figure on the West Coast guitar scene for years - when not channeling Dave Murray's sound, style, and licks onstage with The Iron Maidens, she might be found recording rocking classical renditions of various video games with Critical Hit, or maybe even on the road playing some hard funk with Jermaine Jackson. She is definitely not one to let grass grow under her feet - she even finds time to work with her co-guitarist and longtime friend/roommate Courtney Cox in not just the Maidens, but also Lorraine Lewis's reformed Femme Fatale who hit the waves between March 29-April 2 for the incredible (and sold out) Monsters of Rock Cruise, in which they'll be showing off both FF, and The Maidens.

Needless to say, Nita Strauss is a very busy guitar player, and that's always a good thing these days. She took some time in the middle of her busy NAMM show schedule for our chat, which came just days after I had experienced the dazzling Iron Maidens. I must admit that I'm not a big tribute band fan, but when I stood at the back of Hollywood's legendary Viper Room and shut my eyes, it was as if Dave Murray was on the stage, and I'm not an easy sell - I know Murray's signature trills and bends like I do the back of my hand, and Strauss had it down. Color me blown away.

I decided to go straight for the throat of the 800 pound gorilla standing beside me at the back of The Viper Room, and get the 'girl' question out of the way. You may say that I am perpetuating by even bringing it up, but I'd say you weren't in the room that night as the capacity crowd gave their love and support to the metallic lasses - being female, and attractive is almost never a hindrance, and Strauss proves it:

Nita Strauss: "You know, I get asked this a lot, so which is why when you say the 800 pound gorilla in the room, I see the softball coming. 
"And really, people have this idea that it's really difficult to be a female in music, because for a long time, it was. You remember Jennifer Batten, Heart, Lita, and all the pioneers talking about how difficult it was to make their way, but now it's 2014 and they've done it. They broke down all the barriers, and now there is this surge of incredible female musicians coming out. 
"I'm just really excited to be on the forefront of that. Now, it's really just about getting equal footing, and saying we can do this without worrying."

I was curious as to how she came to find her way into The Iron Maidens:

Nita Strauss: "Courtney Cox, the other guitar player who plays Adrian's parts is my best friend in the whole world. 
"A few years ago in 2011, she asked me if I would just learn ten songs, just as a favor - just to help her out, and I said, sure, I could do a couple of gigs. Now, it's like three years, and forty songs later! We're still doing it and still having a blast! 
"It's so much fun - we all get along great, all the members are really good friends. Working with a tribute band - I've been in a lot of original projects, but this is the first tribute band I've ever worked with, and it's really a different dynamic. 
"There's no competition of like, 'You do too many solos, I don't write enough, or I don't get paid as much in royalties,' because it's Iron Maiden songs! There's not some of the disappointments that come with original music. We just show up, play Iron Maiden songs, and have a great time!"
Photo by Jack Lue

If you've never seen an Iron Maidens show, I must tell you - fun is absolutely something you'll have. More than fun, it's also an almost eery experience. If you shut your eyes and listen you'd be excused for thinking that the actual guitarists were in the room playing, even to the point of each player playing the appropriate harmonies, a feat that takes great listening, attention, as well as chops. I asked Nita about their attention to detail:

Nita Strauss: "I have to give Courtney credit for that. Courtney is a very detail oriented guitar player, and when I first joined the band I wasn't aware of who was going to do what parts. 
"She was the one who made sure that everyone was doing the right parts at the right time. Even to the point where I always, every band I was ever in since I was thirteen years old, I've been on stage left, and Dave Murray is on stage right, so I'm the guitar player on stage right with The Iron Maidens! 
"Iron Maiden fans are some of the most meticulous of music fans. There is so much to be meticulous about - so many details of the IM stage show, so the real fans know it, right down to the UFO intro song, all those little things. So I think the fans really enjoy it! 
"When I first started learning the songs, I wasn't familiar with any of Dave Murray's techniques - I was always a very Steve Vai/John Petrucci/Yngwie Malmsteen type of player, so I had to learn the blues scale for playing Dave Murray's parts. 
"I knew the notes, but I really learned to utilize it by playing Murray's parts. I did my audition for them, which was three songs, and then I did my first show a week later with no rehearsals. The band was in South America. My first show was twelve songs at The House Of Blues. I learned the songs, we ran them down at soundcheck, and then we just did it!"

Life's funny - just before I went down to Los Angeles for the week of the NAMM Show and its many shows, and events, my sister-in-law asked me if I knew of the band Femme Fatale - it turned out she had worked with the band's founder and lead vocalist, Lorraine Lewis, many years earlier in a flower shop in Portland, Oregon. I told her that while I knew of the band, I didn't know the singer. I happened to look up Femme Fatale before I made the trip, and damned if there, looking me in the eye from their web page was Nita Strauss, and Courtney Cox. They later introduced me to Lorraine at Brian Tichy's Bonzo Bash at The Observatory in Santa Ana, and over the course of some great music and a Jagermeister, or two, it was confirmed that Lewis was as cool as my sister-in-law had remembered, and also that Strauss and Cox could hold their own as very cool rockers. I asked Nita how the Femme Fatale gig had come to be:

Nita Strauss: "Courtney and I were approached by Lorraine - she wanted to get the band back together. 
"I think it was originally done around the Monsters Of Rock Cruise - she had gotten an offer from them to do the cruise, and she thought, 'Why not do Femme Fetale with an all female lineup? 
"She got my number from another guitarist friend of mine, and she approached Courtney on Facebook. She approached us separately - Courtney and I had lived together for years, now we live next door to each other, but at the time we were living in the same apartment! We had been roommates for years! 
"We got the calls a day apart, so we told each other about it right away - Courtney was like, 'Oh, I got this call about Femme Fetale,' and the next day I was like, 'Hey, I got that call, too!' 
"It's funny because just the week before, we had heard Femme Fatale on Furious Radio, and we were talking about this song, and this band, saying, 'This is a great vocalist!' We're pretty picky about musicians and vocalists - especially guitar players, but also singers. We were like, 'This is the kind of singer we like, this is who we should be in a band with,' and the next week we were! 
"So, it's funny how these things turn out - Lorraine is a blast, she is such a powerhouse. She's a great vocalist, she's fantastic onstage, and she's got a great work ethic. She's always pushing us to be more exciting, and to do cool stuff onstage. She even brought her confetti cannon to our last show, she's a blast! 
"We've talked about doing new material - Lorraine has some material that she has wanted to release for a while, and I think we'll be working on that later this year."

In addition to being a near full-time rocker, Strauss finds time to lay down some more clinical rock with Critical Hit, 'a video game music tribute band performing original arrangements and electrifying live concerts of music from the most celebrated video games of all time':

Nita Strauss: "Yeah, I work with a band called Critical Hit, which is a really cool thing. I wouldn't call it completely original material, but it's like rock and symphonic arrangements of classic video game themes. If you look on YouTube, there's another new one out this week that should be really great. 
"I've actually worked n a lot of video game scores, but I'm not a video game player. I worked on the soundtrack for the new Metal Gear game, I wrote and played some guitar on that. 
"We did the Angry Bird theme and it's pretty wild - it's totally acoustic guitar for me, so it's kind of fun! I had to listen to some Tommy Emmanuel before recording that! There's a really rocking version of the Tetris Theme, and there's more serious one's like World Of Warcraft - it's really a cool project, the album's out now."

Courtney Cox is a name and face that pops up alongside Nita Strauss, and they've been friends, roommates, and band mates for years:

Nita Strauss: "Courtney is amazing. We have such a great time together with everything we do. 
"It's not often that you find a band member that you never get tired of hanging out with! But, we play in two bands together, we go out, we live next door to each other, our boyfriends are best friends - we eat together, drink together, we do just about everything together!"

I laughingly suggested that a reality show couldn't be far away, and I was surprised to find that i's evidently at least been mentioned:

Nita Strauss: "Well, if there was a reality show, and I'm not saying there is, it would be focused around a central group of people, and us too! 
"I think, basically, in everything we do, we're basically cast as one character! Whether we're ina band, or whatever, we're kind of a package deal. 
"Personalities aside, Courtney is one of the most talented guitar players out there right now. I'm excited to see her stretch her wings a little bit, more outside of The Iron Maidens' arena."

After reading all this about metal tribute bands, rocking roommates, and high tech video game themes, a name you might not expect to hear would be that of Jermaine Jackson - but, when Jermaine needs a high octane guitar wizard for his road show, he calls upon no other than....Nita Strauss. It brings us full circle, and it is exposed that it matters not what gender you inhabit, if you have the chops, the personality, and the drive, you can get any gig you want. I asked her about gigging with the Jackson R&B show:

Nita Strauss: "Yeah, it's a totally different thing! There are things I can't really say yet, because the press releases aren't out, but I can say this - I'm going over those songs again! 
"I have the guitar with the Tone Zone and Norton (DiMarzio Pickups), instead of the Evolutions plugged in right now, and it's a totally different thing. I had an amazing tech at the time, who really helped me dial in my tone. 
"Reinhold Bogner built me the amp which I used on that tour, that I still use now - it's an Uberschall, but it's got an Ecstasy clean channel, so it's got the really crisp, very bright cleans that I need for all the funk-picking kind of stuff. I have a Goldfinger mod - a white Uberschall with a pink Bogner logo.  
"That's my shredding machine - it can go from that really crisp, bright and clear tone. Mike Scott was the other guitar player in Jermaine Jackson's band, he said, 'You don't want no dirt in your cleans!' 
"That's what the Ecstasy clean chennel gives, then you flip over to the Uberschall distortion channel, and you get punched in the gut, it's awesome! Punched in the gut in the best way."
Photo by Craig Newman

Wrapping things up gently, I asked the guitarist what advice she might have for anyone picking up an Ibanez Jem and a pink Bogner:

Nita Strauss: "Have fun, learn songs you like, and get a metronome that doesn't have an annoying sound, because you'll be using it a lot!"

So, there you have it - a great bit of advice from a source who can't be questioned.

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