Shooting Star - 2001 Interview with Van McLain (Nov 2001)

Shooting Star
Interview with Van McLain
Written by: Lee Bradfield (Nov 2001)

An institution throughout the midwest of the USA are the band Shooting Star. Their brand of symphonic rock melding into AOR is stuff of legend. The band went through three noticeable phases during their history: The Virgin years, the Geffen and Enigma phase, and then the V&R years.

Apart from V&R which is the band's own label, Shooting Star have had numerous collisions with these labels, a sorry tale of woe if ever we've heard one. You'll read about it further on down.

For those unfamiliar with their classic lineup, it was: Gary West - vocals, keyboards; Van McLain - vocals, guitars; Charles Waltz - violins; vocals; Bill Guffey - keyboards; Ron Verlin - bass, and Steve Thomas - drums. There were numerous lineup changes over the years, including Norman Dahlor on bass replacing Ron Verlin on the 'Silent Scream' effort in 1985, plus a series of additional players who hooked up with Shooting Star at the end of the 80's.

Without doubt they are one of the archetypal AOR bands of the genre, and proud to be so. Their website is full of neat and insightful snippets of their history, and you really should spend a bit of time wading through the material, which is exactly what Glory Daze's Lee Bradfield did.

Through a friend of a friend, Lee gets the opportunity to ask the obligatory twenty questions with the band's long time figurehead Van McLain. (Nov 2001)

Van, thanks for taking time out to join us - welcome. Let's go back to before the first album and into late 70's Kansas City, how did the formation of Shooting Star come about?
Thanks. The bass player Ron Verlin and I were friends since kindergarten. We played together in high school and moved to England in 1975. We signed a deal with Arista/Bell Records and recorded a song called 'Take The Money And Run'. In that same year Steve Miller wrote a different song called 'Take The Money And Run' which kind of shot our deal. Our drummer decided to stay in England so Ron and I went back to Kansas City and needed a drummer.

When we were growing up in KC we idolized a local band called The Chessmen who had an eleven year old drummer named Gary West. This was ten years later so Gary was 21 and we asked him to join our band. He was already working on a project in New York called The Beckies. He said he was interested but he was already committed. When The Beckies didn't work out he called us and joined up. We played the Kansas City bars in 1978-1979. We went to New York in 1979 and showcased for many top labels but we signed with Virgin.

Please tell us how you got from there to being signed to Virgin and flying to London to record the debut?
We picked Virgin because they were going to make a big push in the US. We thought we would be a priority. They talked to Gus Dudgeon on our behalf and he owned a studio in London so they brought us there to record.

Shooting Star - s/t

Released in 1980, the Shooting Star debut is a very strong statement of pure AOR - classic melodic songs and a crisp production that sounds somewhat ahead of it's time. How does this record hold up for you 21 years on?
It is still my favourite Shooting Star album. Part of that is the first songs and all of the excitement and memories but part because I just love some of those songs. When you write your first album it is totally from the heart. The second album you always have pressure to write hits or radio friendly material whereas the first songs have no biases.

When 'Last Chance' started getting some attention, Virgin failed to respond and frustrated fans were not finding Shooting Star products in their stores. This was the first of many record company let downs over the years, tell us what that was like and how you dealt with it?
We were very excited that 'Last Chance' was getting so much attention and we didn't understand what we know now. Virgin made us think they were big time and had deep pockets but if you read Richard Branson's book you will find out they were broke at the time. Part of me always wonders what if? But I am still very satisfied so many fans found us in spite of all of the record company screw ups.

When you hit the road in support of the debut record, which bands did you play with and how were you treated by them?
Our first tour was opening for Robin Trower. He was pretty distant and to himself. We also toured with Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Jefferson Starship, ZZ Top, Heart, Journey, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult, Bryan Adams and many others. ZZ Top and Journey were my favourites. Molly Hatchet and Heart were my least favourite.

The follow up record 'Hang On For Your Life' had an amazing stretch in the Billboard Top 100 album chart back in 1981, would you put this down to hard work and constant touring, resulting in a growing fan base?
It was almost all touring and airplay in selected cities. It certainly had nothing to do with help from the record company. They were a joke.

After the momentum created by the response the second album received, you would have had every right to expect the third album to be the big platinum breakthrough. What factors do you think prevented 'III Wishes' from achieving just that?
I personally think that was our weakest effort. We were torn by trying to get a top forty hit and still being true to our fans. We also made a mistake in releasing 'Where You Gonna Run' as our first single which had Charles singing. It was a good song but our fans didn't know who it was because it wasn't Gary or I singing.


For the fourth album 'Burning', producer Kevin Elson was retained from the previous record, but the sound is far more urgent and dynamic this time around. With such AOR classics as 'Straight Ahead', 'Burning', 'Train Rolls On' and 'Dreams' on board, you must have all felt very proud of your efforts - and very let down when the label did nothing with the record?
We were very excited. We thought we were going to get the Journey tour but Bryan Adams got it instead. The video for 'Straight Ahead' was terrible so we didn't get MTV play. This was such a disapointment that Ron Verlin left the band. We toured a lot but it didn't catch on. 'Burning' is still one of my favourite songs that Gary and I ever wrote.

'Burning' was your last record on the Virgin label, tell us how the Geffen deal came about, and what role John Kalodner played to have gotten a big 'thank you' in the 'Silent Scream' liner notes?
John Kalodner wanted us to sign with him at Atlantic Records when we signed with Virgin. He had followed our career and thought he could help us break through. When the album came out Geffen did nothing and John didn't go to bat for us. I was very disappointed in him when he wouldn't even return my phone calls. I lost all respect for him and I think he has just been in the right place at the right time to gain so much acclaim.

Shooting Star - Hang On For Your Life (1981)Shooting Star - III Wishes (1982)
Shooting Star - Burning (1983)Shooting Star - Silent Scream (1985)

'Silent Scream' is widely regarded as one of the top 5 AOR albums of all time, and rightly so. Despite the many setbacks over the years, the songs on this record are vibrant and positive, not to mention melodic in the extreme. How on earth did it elude multi platinum status?
We probably didn't have the right management or record company. I know Geffen was highly regarded but they sucked. Their head of promotion was fired for a sexual scandal and they basically were living off of Don Henley. I know from the outside looking in this doesn't seem possible but I believe most record companies succeed in spite of themselves.

At this point Gary West parted ways with Shooting Star, but his name appears now and then in subsequent writing credits. Have you remained in touch and on friendly terms all these years?
Gary and I parted ways after 'Silent Scream'. He was sick and tired of all the disappointments and he never really liked to tour that much. He had kids at home and he basically walked away from music. He runs a very successful business in Kansas City. Many songs that we wrote together didn't make it to the albums so I have used some of those songs to keep the Shooting Star sound as authentic as possible. Gary and I rarely see each other but we are not on bad terms.

There have always been comparisons made between Shooting Star and Kansas, to what extent did they influence you and do you feel that the band's individual style became more clearly defined with each release?
Even though I like Kansas they were never an influence. People just assume that because we had a violin. We actually added Charles Waltz for his background vocal abilities. He just happened to play violin.

Over the first five years there must have been some memorable tours - tell us about some of your favourite shows in the early 80's, and specifically the Boston Garden with Cheap Trick?
My favourite show was Busch Stadium in St. Louis with Journey and Sammy Hagar. We came on first and didn't realize how popular we had become. We were very nervous going out on stage in front of 60,000 people. The crowd went crazy and I think we stole the show! It was also incredible to play with Cheap Trick at the Boston Garden in their heyday. Limos, screaming girls, the press and backstage celebrities made it quite an evening to remember.

After filling out the band lineup with some new faces including new vocalist Keith Mitchell, Shooting Star hit back with a Best Of release including a new recording 'Touch Me Tonight', which promptly went down a storm on MTV and climbed into the Billboard singles chart. This must have felt like some long overdue good fortune, but at the same time Enigma weren't alert enough to capitalise?
Enigma went bankrupt right in the middle of all of this. I swear I'm not making this up. Can you believe our luck?

Shooting Star - It
The superb studio follow up 'It's Not Over' demonstrated a band in prime form, and deserved far more attention than it received. Despite JRS Records having distribution through giants BMG, yet another let down was in store. Please tell our readers what happened?
Same thing different company. JRS went bankrupt so we put 'It's Not Over' out on our own label V&R Records.

A short time after 'It's Not Over' you were diagnosed with cancer. Please tell us, as much as you're comfortable with, how you dealt with it at first, how you overcame it and how you are feeling now?
When I was told I had esophagus cancer I thought my music career was over anyway. After the 'It's Not Over' album not succeeding I had gotten into the real estate business with my family. I had massive amounts of chemo and radiation and part of my esophagus was removed. It was a very tough year and my prognosis was not very good.

I am sure God intervened and kept me here for some reason. I still am not sure what that is but I spend time every day praying about it. I have always been a Christian but I am much stronger in my faith now because of what I went through. I am now four years past and my last catscan was clear. I feel great!

Last year saw the return of Shooting Star via a very strong studio record 'Leap Of Faith'. In the liner notes you've written a pretty alarming list of chronological events, a virtual 'Shooting Star history in a nutshell' full of setbacks and adversity. How have you and your bandmates been able to keep coming back stronger every time?
I stay with music because I love it and I love the fact that our music touches people. Maybe not millions like some artists but even if only one person got something out of it, thats enough.

The music on 'Leap Of Faith' is classic Shooting Star - always intrinsically melodic yet never lacking in power, the hallmarks of great AOR. Do you find that some bands who are clearly AOR tend to avoid that 'tag' because they reckon it has some negative connotations in today's scene? Whereas your first five album reissues each feature a ticket stub proudly displaying Genre: AOR.
We are proud of being an AOR band. We try to do music that we like and let the chips fall where they may. 'Leap Of Faith' is my second favourite album we ever did.

Shooting Star - Leap Of Faith (2000)

Right up to date now, a Shooting Star tour and a CD release 'Best Of Shooting Star Vol. 2' are imminent. Since the first compilation covered the first four albums, can we expect tracks from 'Silent Scream' and subsequent releases?
Yes, here goes:

Hang On For Your Life (live 1981)
Are You On My Side
Couldn't Get Enough
Summer Sun
Heat Of The Night
Get Ready Boy
Do You Feel Alright (live 1983)
Touch Me Tonight (live 1995)
It's Not Over
We Can't Wait Forever
I Need Your Touch
Leap Of Faith
If You Want It

Would you like to send a message to all the faithful Shooting Star maniacs, who have stuck with you through everything? What can they look forward to from Shooting Star in the future?
We are energized and excited about the future. We are touring the United States in December, and hope to do more next year. I can't believe how our fans have stuck with us. For that I am forever grateful. What a bunch of maniacs!

Van, it's been an honour and thank you again for the legacy of great music and this interview.
Great questions! My answers would have been a little longer if my typing didn't suck so bad. Thanks, Van.

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