Thundering back into action - British rock gods

Danny Bowes and Ben Matthews of rock band Thunder.
Danny Bowes and Ben Matthews of rock band Thunder.

Interview by Graham Chalmers

“I love singing to an audience. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

It’s Wonder Days, indeed, for anthemic hard rock band Thunder, writes Graham Chalmers.

The title of their forthcoming album, neither it nor their forthcoming tour which hits Leeds in early March were something lead singer Danny Bowes saw coming, he admits.

The Noughties had been a topsy-turvy decade of partial reunions after a big bust-up in 1999 – interspersed with the occasional hit from self-released albums.

Who could have foreseen a proper Thunder reunion in the tens?

“It’s been a real shock just how popular the band has remained in the five or six years we’ve done very little. When we did those shows supporting Journey and Whitesnake in 2013 we were surprised how many people turned up to see us.”

It’s been 25 years since this London-based five-piece’s debut album Backstreet Symphony.

I tell him Thunder are now the only great British rock band not of a pensionable age.

“Ha! All we’ve had to do is stay alive! There’s a lot of average stuff out there today. I suppose the cream has a tendency to rise to the top.”

A case of longevity over coolness, ask any Thunder fan what makes the band special and he or she will usually point to their live performances.

In fact, without the success of those live shows, there wouldn’t even be a new Thunder album, says Danny.

“We had no intention after we split in 2009 of making another record. But the audience reaction to our live appearances after that inspired us. We were pleasantly surprised.”

Their live reputation will certainly be put to the test on their short arena tour.

Rhythm guitarist, keyboardist and Pro Tools whizz, Ben Matthews is currently recovering from tonsil cancer.

It’s this which explains why their live comeback is scheduled to include only three major dates so far.

“After his treatment last summer, Ben’s been given the all-clear. The fairly horrendous side-affects laid him very low but every day he gets a bit stronger.”

I ask Danny whether he’s sure his longtime comrade in arms Ben will be physically up to it.

“Normally we’d be playing shows up and down the country. We’re very glad now we only arranged three big shows.

“Fingers crossed, he will be ready for March. It must be frustrating for him. We’re hoping and praying he continues to improve.

“Mind you, those Gibson Les Paul guitars are heavy beasts.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Ben scarcely appears on Thunder’s new album Wonder Days.

Mixed by Mike Fraser, whose magic touch has been sprinkled previously on the likes of Aerosmith, AC/DC and Metallica, the band seem delighted with the results of their studio reunion.

“We were determined that if we were going to do a new album, it had to be good. Ben played a few bits and Luke filled in on everything else.

“Luckily, Luke’s a complete control freak. He’s been heavily involved with all parts of the process. As luck would have it, he’d decided last year to learn to play the piano better.

“We took our time writing and recording the new album. I think it’s a really strong record. Everyone who has heard it has loved it.”

Danny tells me he off to a Crystal Palace goalkeeper’s testimonial ‘do’ shortly, partly because it’s being held at a nearby theatre and partly because his son is a great Palace fan.

In a weakish case of ‘six degrees of separation, I tell him a friend of mine, Paul Kettley, a great local singer, is friends with Classic Rock magazine writer Dave Ling, who’s also a Palace fan - and a friend of Danny’s.

But it’s all getting a bit complicated.

A look at Wikipedia’s colour-coded family tree of Thunder since they first unleashed their powerhouse riffs and big choruses after the demise of early band Terraplane, shows a complex web of line-ups changes.

Or, at least, that’s what I reckoned.

I attempt to share a Spinal Tap-esque bit of ribaldry with Danny about the band’s history but he quickly points out that the line-up has remained the same since the beginning – with the obvious exception of the bass player.

“Our bass player at the very start was a maniac. We would have killed him if we could have got away with it!

“The next one was a lunatic Swedish man. We liked him a lot but his girlfriend got in the way. He might have drunk himself to death anyway.

“The band is the same as it ever was – just older and crustier.”

That sense of their own history hangs heavily on the striking sleeve of Wonder Days.

The front shows a black and white photograph - staged – of themselves as young kids on the derelict, industrial streets of their school days.

Elsewhere, there’s another black and white photograph of the band as they are today, older and wiser but still on those same derelict, industrial streets.

Despite quarter of a century of success, Thunder are not a band to forget their roots.

They’re not called a “band of the people” for nothing.

A family friend, Ben Bolton is a massive fan and saw them in their breakthrough gig as the opening band at the Monsters of Rock back in 1990.

I ask Danny on his behalf how important that festival was, and still is, to Thunder, bearing in mind a previous reunion in 2002 only happened because they were offered a high profile slot on a Monsters of Rock arena tour?

“It’s been very significant for us. The rumour in 1990 was that we weren’t going to appear. I’d had a scare beforehand. I’d lost my voice.

“Luckily it came back in front of 80,000 people! It was the moment in our career we needed to shine.

“We’re a good band in a festival situation. The collective shared experience of that many people going bonkers is amazing.”

What would your dream festival line-up be, I ask him, passing on another question from Ben -includingThunder themselves, obviously.

“Metallica - we couldn’t do a festival without them. Aerosmith - for Steve Tyler’s cheek and his lips!

“Iron Maiden, who’re friends of our’s. Foo Fighter. who are amazing. And Van Halen - Dave Lee Roth is the reason I got into being a frontman, rather than just a singer. He is the complete entertainer.”

That would be one expensive line-up, I point out.

“Tickets would have to be about £1,000 each,” Danny replies.

With 18 top 40 singles and a string of gold and platinum albums, Thunder’s penchant for big melodies and big riffs is obvious to behold.

But, perhaps, it’s their spirit which really explains their enduring popularity rather than simply massive international hits such as Dirty Love and Love Walked In.

“The fans know we’re regular people. We love the audience. But as a bunch of individuals, the band get on very well. When we’re in a room together, we spend most of the time laughing.

“We know which buttons not to bother pressing now. It’s like being married.”

Thunder play Leeds First Direct Arena on Thursday, March 12.