Ron, you left ABATTOIR in 1983, but COMMANDER was formed only in 1985. What did you do inbetween?
Actualy right after the time i left Abattoir, i had started Commander that following week. Didnt take a lot of down time. I knew what i wanted to do as far as music style. I called a friend named Kent Knieper, which started the Line-up. We brought in David Macias on the advice of Mark Caro ( the shark ) who hooked it up.Plus i had started writing and putting songs together,,,this wasnt more then a coouple weeks after Abattoir. That time as spent getting the line-up together...as Jon came into the project he was a perfect fit.
Why did it take so long founding a new band?
It took a little time to get the right members together plus material. Dave, Jon and Myself had come up with a concept and we stuck with it. The song writing was the main reason for time spent plus member changes, we always had a problem with Bass players...
At this point, so in the mid ’80s was the great thrash metal boom starting with new bands, such as NECROPOLIS, DECAPITATION, WARGOD, BLOODLUST, ARCHENEMY, DEATH FORCE, CRYPTIC SLAUGHTER, SADISTIC INTENT etc., what were your views on these new acts and how did you view the thrash metal movement as a whole?
A lot of my friends were in these bands....and i was always amazed by the energy they capture. I personally was not interested in playing this style as I had done it with Abattior so I pretty muched left it to the people who were good at it.
My background was more of a Saxon, Rainbow style...but it doesnt mean i didnt like the likes of Abattoirs and the Slayers of the world. Still do..a lot of my current stuff is Rainbow based...
Would you say, that METALLICA and SLAYER played/had an important role considering the thrash metal boom, since they heavily influenced a lot of new bands and they were a kind of pattern for young musicians?
Oh without a dought...they definietly made if come to life in a big way. First time i saw Slayer, it was in Anahiem somewhere...and they were just so freakin loud and just blowing people away...Abattoir were in the studio doing the Metal Massacre 4 album and we were working with Bill Motoyer...and he lets us get a sample of ’Hell Awaits”...you knew then these guys are for real...major player...and the bar was set...set high for everyone else who wants to try and reach...
Do you agree with, that the L. A. scene was divided in two parts? There were the hair/glam, commercial outfits, such as DOKKEN, RATT, MÖTLEY CRÜE, W. A. S. P. and the thrash/speed ones, that were overshadowed by the glam groups and got less attention from the part of the metalheads, press etc.
?Yeah i think that was all the media could handle...they couldnt deal with the thrash stuff...it was too much for them to listen too as well as watch. And that lead to a lot of misconceptions of thrash..”it was only fast and loud”...”they all worshoped the devils”...they were all on drugs”...And i have no problems with the other stuff...Dokken, Ratt and such...thought there was a lot of good stuff...as a song writer i listen to everything...you have to..you cant be one dimesional...most people listen to everything..
So, COMMANDER was formed in 1985 by you on drums and guitarist Dave Macias, how did you get together?
As i mentioned, I had another guitar player at the time, and on the advice of Mark Caro I called Dave,,,I had seen Dave playing and i cant remember who he was with, but thats where i first met him and bringing him in was what we needed to find our sound. The first guitar player would eventually leave. I remember Dave saying...let me do the guitar work by myself...Now i have always loved the 2 guitar player set...but Dave has such a big and full sound that we didnt miss the other guitarist.
What was your conception considering COMMANDER’s musical and lyrical world?
Like i said, I was a Saxon fan and i loved their style of music. Had good energy and they could do both get a heavy song in and change it to be more dramatic, IE Cruesader. Thats what i wanted to do, be able to play different styles....and i felt we achieved that. Also we wanted to use melodies the way Rainbow did with Ronnie James Dio..and with Jon’s voice and his creativity with melodies it made it easy to write for.
High N Mighty was a heav Would you say, that you wanted to break with ABATTOIR’s power/speed direction and to create some melodic, but a catchy, powerful outfit?
Exactly, High N Mighty was a song i was so proud of. It hit exactly what i wanted to do. Heavy and something that you will remember. It was the corner stone for me at the time. The opening drum pattern was something i learned by mistake and it just set the tone. Daves guitars hit the mark in a big way,,,he captured the perfect feel. Jon and I worked on the lyrics one night, i had all the melodies and i knew he would be able to enhance them...and he did just that...this song was really a collabrative effort. It was actually the third song we wrote...”The Wizard” was the first, Dave brought that in...and „We Are Ready” was Dave and I writing...which „’ We Are Ready” still rings in peoples ears when i talked to them about Commander. Jon came in right when we start writing ’High n Mighty”...and he was thrown right in..That actually set the tone for the Mid-Evil, Renassaiunce theme...
Why did you change your name from Ron Gonzales to Ron Avila?
Hahahha oh thats a good question... Avila is actually my Grandmothers last name...and she was such a big influence on me. She truly believed in me and made me believe i could do this music thing...she was my piano teacher as well..and actually I changed my name to honor her. If you notice on the Commander Album i have a music note around my neck. I was listening to Journey, as i am a big fan..and she was looking at the album, and notice Steve Perry’s music note on the back of the Departure album. She liked their style and she said, „you can be like them if you want”...and she bought me the same music note...and i still wear to this day. I have it on at all gigs..actually i cant remember the last time i took it off....
Did the fans know, that you are the same person who was involved earlier in ABATTOIR?
Actully i get that a lot. Most people dont make the connection and it really doesnt bother me. I know i was part of something very special with Mark, Mel, Juan and Raul. I learned a lot while being with Abattoir and used what i learned in Commander. Plus its the style i played with Commander they dont see the crossover...so they never make the connection. Its even worse now with Joe the Boss, they cant see the crossover from Commander and Abattoir. As currently Dave and i work in this Joe the boss project which is a Journey style.
At which point did singer Jon Natisch and bassist Richard Mejia join the band?
Jon came in pretty much towards the begining. We had just completed writing ’We Are Ready” and High n Mighty” was just in the works. Jon was pretty much the only singer we auditioned. He was amazing and with such a powerful voice there was very little dought about him. Dave had played with Jon in a previous band so thats how we were in contacted with him. Dave really didnt think Jon would join us but after some getting used to us he was all in. When Jon joined up with us we pretty much hit the ground running. As for Richard he had come into the picture after we were already playing shows.We had gone thru a few bass players and we were looking for another one. Richard i had known each other from a band we were in right before i left for Abattoir, we also went to High school together...We Richard Mejia, Mark Caro, Mel Sanchez, and Juan Garcia...all at the same high school...WOW!! Richard was one that Jon wasnt sure of. Richard is a straight forward type of bass player, ideal for my style of straight forward drummer. I knew we would make a great rhythm section. Plus Richard has a great personality and thats what sold Jon on Richard fitting. It was never a question of his ability. We had always felt that it was more important that we fit personally just as important as ability wise.
What about their musical background?
Jon i am not too sure of, he was really good friends with Mike Davis and they both traveled the same cirlce in their town. Mike eventually went to Lizzy Borden and that was the main reason we had a great connection with Lizzy and the guys. Hanging out together and opening for them...we were all pretty good friends.To this day i get to hang out with Mike Davis...since he is a Chef...and a great one..so when he’s not touring he is cooking.
Was it hard to find the suitable members for the band?
To get to the final line-up, mostly the bass player, yes that took some time. But the core of the band, Dave, Jon and Myself was in place pretty early on. Remember also we were playing gigs before we did the Metal Massacre 7. We were already getting to all the major clubs and headlining around LA the circut. I think what helped is playing shows with some good friends like Lizzy Borden, Heritic, and even doing a show with Abattoir. That was truly special to play on the same bill with them. We were all still good friends and still supported each other. We later added the Keyboard player Mark Benson, who never played on stage with us, but sat behind the drum platform and played. Adding the Keys was the final piece as it opened up so many avenues for live as well as in the studio. Which we took full advantage of.
If I’m correct Chris Marxx was also involved in COMMANDER… How about him?
Wow theres a name from the past. Chris was a pretty awesome bass player, he did play with us for maybe a year...if that. I dont remember why he left the project, he was a different guy all together. Kind of jsut showed up and played then was gone. So i guess the connection away from music was never there.
Did you start writing own material right from the start or were you toying with covers?
No I had no intention of doing covers. Went right into origianls as that to me was a better release and more fulfilling then playing covers. Although as many know we did do a cover on the Album. Rainbows’ ’Kill The King” was a perfect fit for us. Perfect for Jons voice, and something we can call our own. I still love that song whether its the Rainbow or Commander version.
Which bands did influence COMMANDER’s music?
Saxon, Iron Maiden, Rainbow....all the hard rock bands seem to have a big impact on our writing. Your imfluences come from many different band..a lot of my writing, even today is from Journey and Toto styles. The list would probably go on forever as i would think of a new one every minute.
Did you have common musical roots or…?
The common bands we had were as I said Saxon and Rainbow, Black Sabbath...again we can go on and on. I think as a band you find a common ground and if it feels good to the rest of the band, then thats what you build on. Dave i know is a big Michael Scheinker fan as we all were....and the likes Y&T are one of my favorites and someone we all loved their music. You learn from all these bands they will all have an impact on you.
As I mentioned above, the L. A. scene was divided into two parts, but in your opinion, where was COMMANDER’s place?
You know that was so hard to say, I always felt and heard frm others that we werent heavy but to heavy for the glam scene. But i loved that, we could play a show with Abattoir and be respected and turn around and play with Ratt and still have an impact. But i think we fit in more with the Armored Saint type..heavy but not thrash.
In my opinion, musically you were very close to MALICE, do you agree with it?
Malice?...never heard that comparison. We got the Armored Saint comparason due to Jons’ outfit live...but we also heard people say we were the same style. Malice was an awesome band, one of my favorites and i am truly honored to have that comparison.
I think there were a lot of bands that were middle of the road like us...
You were featured on Metal Massacre VII compilation with the „The High ’n’ mighty” song, how did you get the opportunity being featured on this record, since you haven’t any demo recorded?
Funny you mentioned the Metal Massacre compilations. I do have the honor of being on 2 of them. MM 4 ( Abattoirs screams from the Grave) and MM7. We actualy did a 3 song Demo, ’ We Are Ready”, The Wizars, ( with a different title ) and ’High N Mighty” but it really never came into the picture for this deal. I knew Brian Slagel from Metal Blade and he had seen us open for Lizzy Borden and others. Plus he had worked with me back in Abattoir this open the door for us. We were actually going to sign with Metal Blade, Be on MM7 and release the album on Metal Blade records.
What was your view about the other bands who were appearing on this record? I’m thinking about HERETIC, SENTINEL BEAST, CRYPTIC SLAUGHTER, DETENTE, JUGGERNAUT and FLOTSAM & JETSAM?
Right...I forgot FLOTSAM & JETSAM, they were good friends of Jon, awesome band...as well as Heretic, both great bands. Cryotic Slaughter were pretty good..but i cant speak for the rest, as i dont think i ever saw them. Its too bad, there were so many bands and they usually played the same night...made it difficult to see everyone.
Did the compilation help to make a name for the band and to increase a fanbase?
Definetly, we started to get some attention. The song was kicking, the production was awesome...put together by Bill Motoyer at the helm. ’High N Mighty” was different from the others...musically had different time signitures and i think that gave it the extra boost to stand out. Plus workng with Bill is so easy, he gets the best out of you. He also record th album.
At which point did you start recording your debut record titled „The high ’n’ mighty”?
Not long after the release of the Metal Massacre...maybe 6 months we started to work out a deal with Metal Blade records. We were looking at contracts, getting lawyers involved and started the business part of the industry...the real crotch kick... So rather then just sit around and wait, we just decided lets start recording and work on the legal stuff after.
How was the album recorded?
The Album was recorded over the course of 2 months maybe. We recorded with Bill Motoyer at Track records. We employeed Joe Floyd from Warroir to produce the record, as Warrior was one of our favorite bands...and Joe was a friend from the past and im just not sure how that came to pass....but he was such a great person to work with. The Album at this point was self funded, remember we still had no deal but we knew we had people knocking. Iron Works was now beating down our door...more so than Brian Slagel. Drums were done in a day....at the crazy hours from 11pm – 6am....but we did it. Bass as well was done in a day.....
Were you prepared to record the album?
In being prepared.....hhhmmm, lets see, when you work with David Macias you really are under the gun to be prepared. We knew exactly we wanted to do down to the science. Rich and I rehearsed with no other instruments....just Bass and drums. We had a great work ethic and it shoulded on the album. Dave to this day is the same....he is a perfectionist and even in Joe the Boss with my material he stresses the work. And thats where i learned it from....he jsut strives for the best...from himself as well as others.
What about the song composing?
Its a combination of the three of us. We all had hands in different songs...But ’Knights of the Round” was all Jon and Dave...as ’Return of the Goth” was Dave..we all had a hand in things. ’To Die By the Sword” was my project. And it was just that, turned into a 9 min song....and just couldnt stop...but live that song was a classic in the set.
Who was responsible for the music and for the lyrics?
We all took part in the music but it breaks down to everybody writing their on parts. Sometimes Dave would have a fill that he would convey to me and i would sing a Rhythm to him like the High N Mighty Rhythm....and he construsted the chords...He would peice it around the melody. Same thing would happen for other songs.
Did it go easy writing the material? How long did it take to write the material?
You know the writing part was actually a lot of fun. We worked well together, had that chemestry that made it work...Very little re-writes if any...and we all had been together so long that it just was second nature. Someone in the band would have an idea and we would just sit and work on it....before you knew it,,,we would have it ready...
Do you think, that „The high'n’ mighty” is a solid effort?
Yeah High N Mighty was just the type of song that had all the elements and just fell into place. As i mentioned the drum intro was a mistake that i made when i was tracking it at my house...and from that point i wrote the song around the drums.
I would say, it’s a diverse stuff considering the songs, containes killer tunes, such as „Knight of the round table”, „Wizard”, the title track or „We’re ready”, the songs are spreading from power metal to monumental, epic and heavy metal, what do you think about it?
Its something that as i listen to now i truly am very proud of what we did. Your right the Album has such songs that have a differnt feel to them. Probabaly from different sources..And its funny we hear a lot of people like ’We Are Ready” Mark Caro loves that song...great to gt feed back on the old material...Maybe Dave and I will play a something from Commander at a Joe the Boss show...just finding someone to sing that may be a problem.
For example „Die by the sword” reminds me of BLACK SABBATH’s „The sign of the southern cross”…it does....I was thinking more the Eagle has Landed....lol
Who came up with the idea covering RAINBOW’s classic „Kill the king”?
Ahh „Kill the King”...that was actually brought by Dave and Jon...we used to jam to different songs and Dave started playing „Kill The King”...and Jon sounded amazing on it... Jon had this amility to imitate some of the best singers...He would do, Bruce Dickenson, and Rob Halford....and of course his idol Dio..but the thing people dont know is he can do Lou Graham from Foriegner,,,,and just do it flawlessly...what a talent, all of them were just amazing...
Did you have some songs written, that didn’t get up on the record by the way?
Actually we did...Jon had written a song called ’Divide and Conquer”, which was supposed to be for the second Album...we actually recorded it during the same sessions....drums and bass,,,the guitar was a scratch track. We had the second album already in mind...we actually had the artist that did the first album do another cover for the second album...at the same time...we were ready to go forward...but just like in life..things sometimes take a turn.
What kind of reviews did you get on the record? How much fans interest did it succeed in kindling/arousing, since a lot of classic, influential albums came out in 1987, such as „Hall of the mountain king” (SAVATAGE), „Fighting the world” (MANOWAR), „License to kill” (MALICE), „Abigail” (KING DIAMOND) or „Taking over” (OVER KILL) to name a few?
Thats the sad part of is all...we never really got to go out and support it. After a few shows in support of the album i left the band do to conflicts...i guess we had become bored as we had been playing the same songs for years..we needed new stuff to keep going and it wasnt happening. I know Commander did some shows without me, but its never the same and things to change. I did go to see one of their shows...and they were really good...different perspective when you are looking at the show from the outside. I didnt even hear about the fans take on things till years later. It did get some great feed back and from a musicans stand point you cant ask for more than that.
Were there any showsor tour(s) in support of the album? How often did you play live at all and what about your live shows? Were you mostly opening acts for bigger, established ones or…?
We never hit did get a chance to play it out, im sure that would have made a big difference...We were actually headliing the Roxy and Whiskey as well as the Country Club before the Album was started, I know we would have done some amazing things had we stuck to it.
The album was released by Azra Records/Iron Works, how much support, promotion did you get from them? Did they care of COMMANDER at all?
Yeah the music business is a cruel one...We got no support from Iron Works...in looking back, we would have been better off going with Metal Blade Records. But you know, you can change the way things went and i try not to focus on that aspect of Commander...I like to think if the times that we made before it all fell apart....all the guys are super talented and i will always respect them as friends and musicians...I think Iron Works was just too small for this project.
Didn’t you have the opportunity/chance getting a contract from bigger, well-known labels, such as Megaforce, Metal Blade or Combat Records?
Yes...as i mentione Metal Blade gave us a contract. And in looking at the deal we counter offered the deal...i think it was a small percentage and amount of future albums...they never got back to us...they said they were having their legal team look at it....and we ended up going elsewhere. It was rumored that Combat had reached out to us but i never saw anything to say they did. Megaforce was just talked...never take to them..
What do you think about the releases of Azra Records, such as „Heavy Artillery” (ARMED FORCE), „Blessing in the skies” (AXEMASTER), „Ample Destruction” (JAG PANZER), or „Overkill” Ep (OVER KILL)?
Those were great....but they went thru Azra not Iron Works, that is the difference. And i dont want to talk bad about Iron Works,,,Dave did what he could but it wasnt what he promised.
What about the „Terror”/”The high ’n’ mighty” single, that was released also in 1987?
I knew nothing about that...that was after my departute. Maybe they were trying to generate the crowd again...they had a product and needed to go forward with it.
What kind of purposes did it serve at all? Was it a labels decision or everything happened behind yours back?
It had to be the label...I dont see Dave and Jon standing for some of things that happened. A different Cassette cover...that was terrible. I dont know what happened there, but that wasnt cool at all...
How and when did the COMMANDER story come to an end? What kind of reasons did lead to COMMANDER’s split/break?
We had just run the corse in my opion and had some internal issues. Its very heart breaking to think that all we did came to an end the way it did. So much so, it saw me drop out of music for years. I wanted nothing to do with it...its like watching a family break up before your eyes....We live and learn to move on...lessons learned...and we can just look bacl at things in a good way...not focus on the outcome...I love what we did and am so proud of how far we came together....you know i see Richard at my current shows and he said it perfect...we shared something that can never be taken away, and we so thankful for what we got to do together.
What do you think about, that COMMANDER was another of those tragic cases in which a band formed, released a reasonably good album during the saturated late ’80s, and was never heard from again? It’s a shame, especially when the album released was of the caliber of „The high'n’ mighty”...
No its more then that for us...we had the drive and we knew we could break thru...there is no dought that we would have done some fun things for the fans...so many stones unturned for Commander...I have talked to Bill Motoyer recently and he just shakes his head...and tells me....you guys had it...and coming from him that speaks millions.
Were all of you involved in other acts after the demise of the band? Did all of you follow what’s going on in the underground scene later on?
I kind of dropped out and started working on Joe The Boss with Mark Caro and even Mel Sanchez was with us for a bit. Its more of a Rock band ala journey, Toto...but its pretty much all i do now. Just released our second Cd...and getting ready to hit the studio in June. David Macias is now in the project as well as Mark is not...so who knows what comes out of us....We get a lot of requests for Commander songs...we shall see. I know after Commander Dave and Jon started a project called Bonehead...and actually Dave just released a CD that is his and Jons music they were working on before Jon passed. Its called Broken Bones....heavy style almost Commander...very good..Rich i only see once in a while...he isnt playing much.
A very sad thing happened three years ago, Jon Natisch passed away, what happened with him? How would you like to see Jon to be remembered?
Yeah i was truly sadden by his passing. Something i know too well. The Singer in JTB passed right after our first cd,,,and it was right before Jons...so when i heard Jon had passed it was a real punch to the heart. I had been talking to jon in recent months and we had even talked about releasing the Commander stuff on CD...digitizing it...and maybe putting another song on there...but again we waited and nothing came from it...Dave has mention still going forard with the CD....and that is a possiblity...now more then ever...Jon should be remembered for the person he was,,,a fun and loving guy....everyones best friend..with an amazing voice....i dont thin enough people really heard him and what he could do...I was blessed to have traveled this jounrey with Jon and the rest of the band..something i will never forget...
Ron, thanks a lot for your answers, anything to add what I forgott o mention?
No thank you for this trip down memory lane...it was great to think back on these times. And to people like you who keep reminding us...its the fans that make the difference...you have more insight to this project then anybody else...lol...thanks for your time and caring about all the music of the past...
Interview by Leslie David
Answers by Ron Avila