As a fan of Million Dollar Reload for many years, I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to singer Phil Conalane in The Empire, Belfast on 15th August just a few hours before he went on stage to play the last gig as Million Dollar Reload and first as Blackwater Conspiracy. So the interview is effectively the last with Million Dollar Reload and first with Blackwater Conspiracy.
Million Dollar Reload released two successful studio albums and a live album, toured across Europe and the USA and played Download on three occasions. They had been signed to Classic Rock’s Powerage record label and later to Frontiers Records at various times. Last year they started to move in a new direction and those plans came to fruition on 15th August when the band announced their new name mid-set and released a new four track EP as Blackwater Conspiracy.
Three tracks from that EP and the interview with Phil were broadcast on the Friday NI Rocks Show on 21st August. That Show is available now from the MixCloud site -
The interview has been transcribed and published below.
Blackwater Conspiracy are Phil Conalane on vocals / guitar, Brian “BAM” Mallon on lead guitar, Kie McMurray on bass, Fionn O’Haigan on drums and Kevin Brennan on piano/keyboard.
NI ROCKS – Hi Phil, thanks for taking some time to talk to Rock Radio NI. We’ve talked about recording an interview for some time and it’s ironic that we get around to doing it tonight. You’re going on stage in a few hours for the last time as Million Dollar Reload and by the time this show is uploaded you’ll have revealed a new name and new EP. Are there mixed emotions there or is it all about moving forward?
PHIL – Absolutely about moving forward. There are no regrets; it couldn’t have come quick enough for us. We’re ready for this, we’re happy that it’s over and we’re ready to move on. We should have done it a while ago but circumstances prevented us from doing that, contractual stuff, blah blah blah, but that’s all done now and we’re ready to move. Can’t wait.
NI ROCKS – The new band name. Tell us what it is and why you picked it?
PHIL – Blackwater Conspiracy. We specifically went for that name because we all live pretty much on the River Blackwater in Tyrone and the other two guys from Co Derry / Londonderry, the Blackwater stretches that far as well. We just wanted something that was a little bit more authentic and the Conspiracy thing is just the best match for us..
NI ROCKS – And it sounds very rock n roll!
PHIL – Well it sounds rock n roll, but unfortunately it means something else in America, but we’re not too concerned about that for the moment. So it’s Blackwater Conspiracy.
NI ROCKS – Have you the new website and social media sites ready to go?
PHIL – It’s all ready to go and as soon as the show is over it’ll all be uploaded and ready to go. http://blackwaterconspiracy.com/
NI ROCKS – Is the old Million Dollar Reload page transforming or is it being left behind?
PHIL – The Facebook page will be left for a little while. The dot com page will be left until it expires organically. All the new pages are ready to go.
NI ROCKS – Tonight you’re also launching a new EP. Are those some of the tracks that you recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales earlier this year? It’s a studio with a lot of history. What was it like recording there compared to here in N Ireland?
PHIL – The reason we went to Rockfield is because a friend of ours works in Rockfield from time to time. He’d been following us and when we played in London the last time we had a conversation in The Crow Bar about three o’clock in the morning he suggested that we should go somewhere else rather than Northern Ireland. There’s nothing wrong with the studios in Northern Ireland whatsoever, but the only problem with them is that there are no studios in the North that you can actually set up as a full band and record in a live situation. There are studios in the UK where you can do that and Rockfield, obviously of course you can. He got us into Rockfield and we thought we’ll take a chance and go over and do it. We went over and recorded a lot of songs and we’ve selected a few to put out on an EP just for starters.
NI ROCKS – How many are on the EP?
PHIL – There are four songs on the EP.
NI ROCKS – We’re going to play three during the show then. We’ll play one now. Which one would you like to play first?
PHIL – “Penny For Your Dirty Mind”
NI ROCKS – It’s been around for a wee while. Tell us about it.
PHIL – It’s been around for a while, but we recorded it in demo fashion at home. When we got to Rockfield we re-arranged it and sonically it’s completely different and it is recorded in a different way. It does sound different and you will recognise the difference in it.
NI ROCKS – I think most people who knew the band knew that the announcement of the end of Million Dollar Reload wouldn’t be the end of the band, although there were a few distressed fans on Facebook etc. There have been a couple of interviews with yourself or Brian and it is clear the change reflects a new musical direction and the desire to make a fresh start. How easy a decision was that?
PHIL – Really easy. Decision is nearly the wrong word. It was kind of organic the way it happened. There was no pre-meditated “oh, let’s go this way”; it’s just the way the songs were going. As you know we lost a guitar player a while ago and we had tried to go in this direction, but it wasn’t really his bag as such, so when circumstances prevailed that he was gone from the band it was really, really easy to jump into what we wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong, Million Dollar Reload for the past seven or eight years is exactly what we wanted to do. There are no regrets about anything at all. Every song was recorded the way we wanted and written the way we wanted. It’s just that we’ve moved on. It’s as simple as that. There’s no scientific reason behind it.
NI ROCKS – Which brings me on nicely to my next question. As you know one of my favourite Million Dollar Reload tracks has been “President Joe” which never appeared on an album. Was that track an early indication of the path the band was taking?
PHIL – Absolutely. You could say “President Joe” was the first indication of the direction that we should have went a while ago and it’s probably the first track that I wrote that was an indication of where we were going to go. It was a laid back more bluesy song.
NI ROCKS – As you know I love it. I’ve videoed it being played twice but never published the videos as we agreed I wouldn’t.
PHIL – Yeah, it has evolved a little bit more actually with the piano in it. The song was recorded for the “A Sinner’s Saint” album but it didn’t make the album because I just wasn’t happy with it at that point. It was missing something and now it’s ready. It’ll be on the album whenever we decide to put it out.
NI ROCKS – We’ve been joined by Nik who tells me she has seen you one more time that I have, thou I’m not convinced.
NIK – I have. He’ll have seen you 50 times tonight and I’ll have seen you 51 times.
PHIL – What!! You’ve seen us 50 times! Holy shit! Where was the first time you saw us?
NIK – I told him the first time he was going to see you - “you’re gonna like these guys”. I saw you here in The Empire.
PHIL – I thought the first time I saw you was in The Nerve Centre when we had an American band over (The Black Mollys in October 2008) and your hair was a lot longer at that time.
NIK – No he was with me in The Nerve Centre, I was on my own the first time.
(NI ROCKS - For the record my first time seeing Million Dollar Reload was on 27th Oct 2007 when they supported Kiss tribute Hotter Than Hell in The Empire – the show in The Nerve Centre was my second time.)
PHIL – You’re playing Blackberry Smoke! (on the sound system in The Empire).
NIK – Yes, I know you like them.
PHIL – Keep an eye out for what’s happening with them.
NI ROCKS – Yes, tonight is my fiftieth and last time seeing you. A nice number to end on! There are more tracks recorded at Rockfield presumably ready for a new album. When are we going to see that and what form is it going to take?
PHIL – There was an album’s worth recorded at Rockfield. It’s going to take a little while for the Blackwater Conspiracy thing to get a bit of momentum. There’s no point putting it out straight away if people don’t know who we are. It’s kinda like starting from scratch again, but in a different way. Insofar as we’re not kids anymore, we know how the business works; we know what we need to do to get to a point where we’re ready to put it out.
NIK – You’re saying it’s more mature music then? (laughs)
PHIL – (Laughs) No, it’s not more mature at all. It’s just what it is. Age appropriate! (All laugh).
NI ROCKS – Million Dollar Reload of course had a history of successful tours and performances including America and Download on three occasions. I’m sure that you have a lot of the contacts from then so when are we likely to see the band out on the road?
PHIL – Well, we’re actually in the middle of sorting a new tour out at the minute, so if it all works out we’ll be on a UK and European tour in November and December. If not, we’ll definitely be on tour later on in the year. It’s going to take a little while for everybody to say this is Blackwater Conspiracy blah, blah, blah. We’re under no pressure this time. Every other time we were doing things we were committed to a label where we were committed to do certain things or an agent where we committed to certain things. We’ve still the same manager, we’re going to keep that guy. But everything is a lot more chilled, so we don’t feel any pressure to do anything. We’re just going to do it and whatever happens will happen.
NI ROCKS – We’ll play another track from the new EP now. Again, I’ll let you pick one and tell us about it.
PHIL – This is a song called “Roll The Dice”. It’s basically a tune that was a real sticker from the start because we wanted to write a song that says alright we’re going to take a chance here, if it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t; but this is what we’re doing. “Roll The Dice” is taking that chance.
NI ROCKS – Acknowledging that a lot of the Million Dollar Reload tracks didn’t sit well with the newer material and new sound, do you think there will ever be the temptation to play some of the others live, or is that it, after tonight they’re gone.
PHIL – If you’ve noticed because you’ve been to a few of the shows over the past year we have been slowly wheeling out a lot of the Million Dollar songs and introducing newer songs that are slated for Blackwater Conspiracy. There are one or two tunes that we will retain because I want to retain them. We’ve reworked them slightly with Kev on piano and keyboards. There are one or two tunes that will be a stable part of the set. I don’t think it’ll take much of a guess to say which one that would definitely be because it has been our biggest song ever. It’s helped us along the way and we’re just going to keep it, because we want to. It’s as simple as that. Everybody in the bad agreed that we wanted to keep that song, so we’re going to keep it.
NI ROCKS – Have you been writing more tracks since returning from Rockfield and has the writing process changed at all with the addition of Kevin on keyboards?
PHIL – The writing process has changed insofar as, if I’m writing a particular tune, I’m writing it with in mind that there’s a piano, keyboard, humming organ or whatever to be integrated into the sound. It leaves a lot more variety, as far as I’d be concerned. There have been certain songs, for instance off “A Sinner’s Saint” there was “Broken” and off “Anthems of a Degeneration” there was “Travel” and there was piano on both of those tunes, but to incorporate it live was always difficult. Now it won’t be difficult. So songs of that genre will be easier. I’m not saying we’re going to write a lot of ballads, because we’re not, but the keyboard gives us a lot more flexibility. And the sound has changed. It’s not just as in-your-face heavy anymore, that’s just not what we’re about anymore. That’s just the way it is.
NI ROCKS – Looking forward, where would you hope to be with the new band and what would you have hoped to have achieved by this time next year?
PHIL – As far as looking forward and achievements as such, there are no real targets to set. We’re just going to do what we do and see where it goes and then at that point if something happens we can maybe capitalise on it. At the moment we’re just kinda finding our feet with the new sound and the new songs. We’re going to play the gigs we’ve done in the past; if we get a few tours and festivals here and there that’s great, but there is no real plan as such.
NI ROCKS – Rock music fans can be an opinionated and critical bunch and social media is what it is. How much attention do you pay to what you read on-line?
PHIL – We see everything that is written on-line and any band that says they don’t read it are lying. Whether you take personal offence to it is another thing. For us there can be times you say “that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about” but at the end of the day if anybody who writes anything or says anything has an opinion and it’s invalidated, it’s up to them. As long as we’re comfortable with what we’re doing it’s fine. Anybody can say what they want. If you’re thick skinned it’s fine, if you’re thin skinned and take everything to heart you’re going nowhere. The thing about it is, and every band will tell you, they only ever remember the bad reviews or someone saying something bad about them and they never remember the good things. I could tell you now all the bad reviews and I can’t remember the good reviews.
NI ROCKS – I’m sure there weren’t that many bad ones.
PHIL – Oh there was. There were a few.
NI ROCKS – Finally, what music are you listening to yourself these days and is there anything out there that influences your own writing?
PHIL – What I’m listening too and what influences me are completely different. I can’t really speak for Brian. It’s usually me and Brian get together to knock out a new tune or whatever, and Kie maybe from time to time. I can’t really speak for what Brian listens too, but at the minute I’m listening to the same stuff I’ve always listened to – AC/DC, Aerosmith, Black Crowes etc. That will never change. As far as influencing the songs goes; there’s nothing really that influences me as such, apart from one dude. He sat me down one night in Germany and said “Phil, love what you’re doing, think your music is great, but it’s got a small niche market and there’s only a certain amount of people will listen to it. If you want to expand a little, I advise you to do this”. That was Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke. It’s quite obvious that our sound is a little Blackberry Smoke-ish, but it would be unfair to say that we’re completely influenced by those guys, because we’re not.
NI ROCKS – It’s not as country. Blackberry Smoke’s last album was particularly country rock sounding.
PHIL – Yeah, they’re deliberately country rock ‘n’ roll. We’re certainly not. We’re still rock and will always be rock. It’s just a little more laid back and chilled out. We’ve done the whole full-on, in-your-face AC/DC style thing, and with me being on guitar now it’s just not practical or feasible for me to do that anymore. It’s just the way it is.
NI ROCKS – That’s us done with the questions. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Good luck tonight and with the new band. We’ll finish off with another new track. Which one shall we play?
PHIL – This song is called “Hanging Tree” and it’s probably one of the first songs that I’ve written lyrically that has a social message in it as such. Everybody has known somebody within their family or whatever who suffers from maybe not the best self-esteem, a little bit of depression and stuff. I’ve had that in my family and my life as well. “Hanging Tree” is about facing your problems head on and trying your best to deal with them without doing anything that would ruin your own life and your family’s lives.
Playlist for the Friday NI Rocks Show
RICKY WARWICK – The Road to Damascus Street
MILLION DOLLAR RELOAD – Bullets In The Sky
Interview with Phil Conalane (Blackwater Conspiracy) Part 1
BLACKWATER CONSPIRACY – Penny for Your Dirty Mind
Interview with Phil Conalane (Blackwater Conspiracy) Part 2
BLACKWATER CONSPIRACY – Roll The Dice
Interview with Phil Conalane (Blackwater Conspiracy) Part 3
BLACKWATER CONSPIRACY – Hanging Tree
MAD MAX – Fly, Fly Away
LYNCH MOB – Dirty Money
HOUSE OF LORDS – 100Mph
TRUCKER DIABLO – We Stand Strong
AC/DC – Gone Shootin