O.C. Metal Band Stresses Guitars Over Glitz

In the world of heavy metal, image is paramount. To move up the ladder of stardom, it helps to establish one's credentials as a titanic virtuoso, a tough guy, a party animal, a pretty-boy love god, or all of the above.

Leatherwolf is trying to make that climb. But in the image department the Orange County band, which leads off a metal triple bill at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Friday, does not go out of its way to cultivate the standard images.

Sitting in a restaurant in their hometown of Fountain Valley last week, Leatherwolf members Michael Olivieri and Geoff Gayer looked and acted like a couple of regular neighborhood guys.

When a paunchy, middle-aged man walked in and greeted Olivieri, he did not want to know how Olivieri was doing in the virtuosic-party-animal-love-god department, he wanted to know whether Olivieri would be around that weekend to play softball. Leatherwolf's lead singer said he could be counted on to man his accustomed third base for the local Shakey's Pizza team.

Actually, Olivieri said, it has been quite a while since he has been able to play ball because Leatherwolf has been too busy playing rock 'n' roll. The five-man band recently returned from a 2-month tour of Europe, in which it was billed second to Japanese and West German metal bands.

The morning after its homecoming show at Irvine Meadows, Leatherwolf will set out on a monthlong, headlining nightclub tour of United States, with hope of staying on the road after that as a warm-up act for one of an arena-rock heavyweight. The aim is to build sales for "Street Ready," the group's second album for Island Records, which has had encouraging early sales and is starting to move up the Billboard charts.

The tales that Olivieri, 25, and Gayer, 26, told as they recounted Leatherwolf's 8-year history had more to do with the prankish camaraderie of suburban kids growing up together than with the pomp and sensationalism of heavy-metal fantasy.

There was the time in 1980, before the band had formed, when Olivieri and Gayer went off on an overnight camping excursion to Big Bear. The two high school friends' aim was to play their unplugged electric guitars in the wilderness.

In between hiding out from park rangers who wanted to throw them out for not paying the camping fee, the two rockers said, they managed to write some guitar parts together--one of which eventually turned up on their new album as the climactic passage of "Black Knight," a dramatic, high-speed instrumental.

Leatherwolf's most serious run-in with officials happened in the band's early days, when three of its members were caught stuffing lockers at Westminster High School with leaflets advertising one of their gigs. Nabbed after a chase through the halls, "we all went to jail for about an hour," Olivieri recalled.

Police also attended some of Leatherwolf's first gigs after the band formed in 1981: private parties that got too loud for the neighbors. "The cops would physically have to grab our guitars, because we wouldn't stop," Gayer said.

After establishing itself in county clubs and releasing an independent album in 1983, Leatherwolf relocated in 1985 to a rented communal house in Van Nuys and began to build a Los Angeles following. The band lost its original bassist, Matt Hurich, because, as Gayer put it, "we were all crazy, and he was getting into the Lord. He felt he should find a Christian project, and we felt we should find another crazy man."

Gayer, Olivieri and the two other original members, guitarist Carey Howe and drummer Dean Roberts, recruited bassist Paul Carman to fill the spot.

In 1987, Leatherwolf was signed by Island Records. After returning to its Orange County base, Leatherwolf released its first album early in 1988. Sales were slow, but Island has taken some extra promotional pains with "Street Ready," including the unusual step of distributing 50,000 free sampler cassettes containing three of the album's songs, interspliced with spoken commentary from Gayer. The cassettes were handed out at rock shows and at record stores in hope of giving Leatherwolf's prospective audience a taste of the band.

What they will hear is a band with a big, melodic sound founded on the layering and interweaving of three separate lead guitar parts played by Gayer, Howe and Olivieri. Rather than emphasizing a fashionable look, Leatherwolf hopes to use this unusual "triple ax attack" as its calling card.

Some of the band's songs stem from personal experiences, such as being separated from a girlfriend while touring. But even these get epic treatment, full of stately guitar harmonies and stormy, driving rhythms. Leatherwolf songs also spring from an interest in mythology and sword-and-sorcery sagas, and from the typical rock-as-rebellion ethic common to heavy metal.

While such songs as "Thunder" are full of titanic, boastful imagery, Olivieri said Leatherwolf is not trying to build a heroic aura around itself, "I don't get real artsy about it or come out in an elaborate costume," the dark-haired singer said.

"We try to stay pretty much down to earth," Gayer agreed.

Steve Pross, national director of artists and repertoire for Island Records, said success for Leatherwolf will depend on the band's ability to build a reputation with straightforward musicianship rather than with fancy imagery.

"There are a lot of bands getting along because of an image, but these guys can play," Pross said. "To me, it's really boring to see bands in clown uniforms. I just want (Leatherwolf) to go out and be themselves."

Olivieri said the band has no illusions about the difficulties of striking it rich in rock. He figures the band will have to score a million-selling album before it turns into a profit-making proposition. For now, Leatherwolf's members are getting to enjoy experiences they had dreamed about. Playing for a big crowd at Irvine Meadows is one of them.

"I don't think there's a time I've been to Irvine when I didn't say, 'I'd love to play here,' " Olivieri said. "We're just getting to see the world and have a good time. Basically, that's all we were in it for from the beginning. If the money comes, great."

Leatherwolf, Warrant and Queensryche play Friday at 8 p.m. at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre , 8800 Irvine Center Drive in Irvine. Information: (714) 855-6111.

BYOB PLAN KO'D: Club Postnuclear continues to be plagued by a nondrinking problem. Since late April, the Laguna Beach nightclub had instituted a bring-your-own-bottle policy in hope of getting around city officials' refusal to grant the club a beer permit. Advertising its evenings as private parties, the club at 775 Laguna Canyon Road had set aside its lobby as a drinking area for patrons over 21, while keeping its concert room and floor space for dancing free of alcohol. But when Laguna Beach police learned of the policy Monday by way of a radio announcement, they quickly told owner William (Max) Nee that no alcohol could be brought into the club without a liquor license.

Police Chief Neil Purcell said Tuesday that Postnuclear could be charged with a misdemeanor if it continued to allow patrons to bring alcohol into the club.

But Postnuclear has agreed to end the policy, he said, and police will not pursue charges.

"Max Nee has always been very cooperative," Purcell said. "I don't think he intentionally set out to break the law."

All this leaves Postnuclear still searching for a way to attract patrons 21 years old and older, which club operators see as a key to making live music succeed.

Without drinking, "it just makes it 100% tougher," said Aldo Bender, Postnuclear's marketing director.

Nevertheless, Bender said, Postnuclear will resume regular live concerts Thursday nights. Death Ride 69, a Los Angeles band that plays industrial and psychedelic-tinged dance rock, will play tonight at 10:30, and Orange County bands Violet Burning and Hobo Slam will play May 18.

Postnuclear, which had been admitting people 18 and older, will drop its age minimum to 16 on Sunday nights starting June 18, Bender said. A May 28 concert by Image Factor and Sixtieth Parallel will also be open to anyone over 16.

LIVE ACTION: Johnny Cash, Bo Diddley and the Blasters will highlight the 12-night concert series at this year's Orange County Fair, July 12 through 23 at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Country music and pop and rock oldies will predominate. Each evening's headliner will play two concerts, 7 and 9 p.m., at the fairgrounds' Arlington Theater, with admission free to all fair-goers. The concert schedule includes: Lee Greenwood, July 12; Rita Coolidge, July 13; the Blasters, July 14; Bo Diddley, the Tokens and the Penguins, July 15; Eddie Rabbitt, July 16; Rain (a Beatles tribute), July 17; Gary Puckett, July 18; Three Dog Night, July 19; Johnny Cash, featuring June Carter and the Carter Family, July 20; Southern Pacific, July 21; Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, July 22; Tony Orlando and Dawn, July 23. Fair admission is $4 for adults, $2 for seniors and children ages 6 to 12, and free for younger children. Information: (714) 751-3247

Hunter S. Thompson will be at the Coach House on May 30. Tickets are also on sale for a June 4 Coach House show by the Violent Femmes.

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