Gus G’s rise from a conservatory in Greece to the lead guitarist in Ozzy Osbourne has been incredible. He did everything to make his dreams a reality from flying across the Atlantic aged 18 to washing dishes and bumming around Europe playing gigs.
In a remarkable 15-year career he’s seen it all as he transformed his bedroom project Firewind into one of Europe’s finest metal bands, courtesy of a career-altering detour with Arch Enemy. Gus has effectively led the life that so many of us wish we could have; he took the risks, dived into the unknown, and today he’s here to tell Guitar Planet his story (and to give us the latest news on all things Ozzy and Firewind).
You grew up in Thessaloniki in the 80s what was the music world like in Greece growing up and when did you decide you wanted to be a guitarist?
When I started playing I didn't even know about a Greek scene. I was nine years old and my father had the record Peter Frampton Comes Back Alive and it was the talk box guitar that just did it for me, but I didn't even realise there were rock bands in Greece until I was 14 or 15.
The Greek scene was very much underground, and that's the way it's remained until very recently. But when I was growing up a black metal scene was emerging, and I think that's due to Blood and Christ because they were one of the first black metal bands in Europe. There were extremes, death metal and thrash, but it was all on the fringe and underground.
So if metal was underground and you started with Frampton, what set you on course to becoming the guitarist we know today?
The cool thing is my father; he didn't know much about rock and roll, but he did expose me, and get me into Peter Frampton and The Eagles. He was listening to Santana and he taught me who Pink Floyd and The Beatles were.
That was my foundation, but growing up I was exposed to Guns N' Roses and Metallica, and at the time Alice Cooper had the Trash album out and it was all-over MTV and the pop chart shows.
But at some point, while I was at high school, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Masters Of Reality by Black Sabbath, and that was a life changing moment. I realised that was the avenue I wanted to go down, that I wanted to make heavier music. However, around the same time I was given another cassette, Yngwie Malmsteen, so I grew up loving the heavy stuff but admiring the shredding style, and I wanted to become a master of both.
So after being turned on to metal you decided at the age of 18 to fly across the Atlantic and attend Berklee music college in Boston; that’s a pretty brave move, what inspired you?
I went to Berklee for 5 weeks but I dropped out pretty quickly.
Somehow it just made sense to me in my little brain back then. Maybe it's because there wasn't much of a metal scene, and I was thinking: If I'm going to this conservatory and I can't find a drummer or a bass player or a proper singer in my town; then I might just need to leave.
Berklee was famous for Steve Vai and Dream Theater and I thought hey maybe if I go there I could form a band. These were all the dreams of a teenager, but somehow it made sense to me and I just said: why not? Thankfully, my parents were very supportive of me.
So why did you quit?
I had made some friends in school, but it was a pretty brave decision, and a quick one for me. Nothing against Berklee but college wasn't for me. I decided very quickly that I'd had enough. I just wanted to be in a rock band. I wanted to experience the real thing. I needed to learn how to jam with people and play gigs, rather than playing with my four track at home.
It was during this time that I made a demo at home, with the help of some college friends, but it was mainly just me, called Firewind.
Ha, so having flown all the way to America you just jumped into the local scene, again. That’s a risk few of us would be brave enough to make, what was it like just trying to make it as a rock star?
Between 1998-2002 was a pretty confusing time. I was all over the place. I was in America for a few months, and then I was back home, I was sending demos out and asking for band mates. A guy from a local Greek magazine put me in touch with another Greek dude who happened to be playing in Germany at the time, and that just became Mystic Prophecy and I ended up doing 3 records with that band.
In 1999 I went to Sweden to check out a buddy's recording, and there I met Fredrick Nordstrom who owned the studio and he asked me to jam with him, and before you knew it we'd formed Dream Evil. The whole time I was writing my own demos for Firewind which I was sending to Leviathan hoping for the best.
To be honest I was working on a bunch of stuff not really knowing what would happen. I was going between Greece-Sweden and Germany just hoping that something was going to happen.
So how were you living at the time – sorry for the cliché but were you just following the music?
I was kind of living like a bum. I'd do jobs here and there, but most of the time I didn't have a job, but I would do anything. Whatever it took, whether that meant I was a dishwasher in a restaurant or working in a nightclub.
But I've got to tell ya; I was lucky. When the first Dream Evil album came out in 2002, we were getting gigs off that record right away, particularly in Japan. We weren't making much money, just enough to cover a small rent, but I was content.
So what was the turning point from “bum” to rock star?
That was right after our third album. We'd put out a record called Forged By Fire, we did a little touring, and the band starting growing. We'd just signed with a bigger label (Century Media) and right around that time, the summer of 2005, I got a call from Michael Amos. He needed a guitar player for Arch Enemy.
And I jumped at the chance. The tour would be amazing, they were doing Ozzfest, and Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden were headlining. It was a huge gig. That five months on the road with Arch Enemy was a real eye opening experience. I saw how these guys were a unit, and how professional they were when they approached making music, playing a gig and just being a band.
It was the first timed I'd joined a real professional outfit and I did a lot of thinking that summer. I came to the conclusion that if I didn't take the same serious approach to Firewind, then it would never be a real band; it'd just be a project that made studio albums.
So I decided not to continue with Arch Enemy and I went back home. I started changing the line up, and we found Apollo and Mark Cross and Firewind had it's proper line up. We recorded our fourth album and set about a world tour.
So once Firewind became a “proper” band, did the dynamic change - most people consider it to be “your band”, did you have total control?
I write most of the material, but I do co-write with the other guys. Apollo writes most of the lyrics and the melodies. Before Apollo and Bob arrived I would write everything alone, but once we settled on the line up we became a team.
Speaking of Apollo his tenure with the band has come to an end, and you’ve announced Kelly Sundown Carpenter as his replacement for the upcoming tour; will he be taking over full time?
We're taking things day by day. We're a band who've seen too many things. The core, me, Petros and Bob, we've seen a lot of people come and go and we love Kelly, but we don't want to pressure anybody into joining the band. We just wanna tour, have a little fun, and see how it goes. He's an amazing singer and the guys were really blown away, and that's how I felt the first time I heard him.
It’s an interesting move because we tend to think of Kelly as an operatic singer from his time with Beyond Twilight.
That was more the vibe of that band, but Kelly he can do a balls out, Rob Halford style too. He can nail the rock stuff. We go from heavy to melodic and he's got it down. People forget that Apollo had that operatic edge to him. He had vibrato. If you check out Times Requiem he's done that stuff, we're more of a straight ahead metal band.
The two singers have a lot in common, and hopefully it'll work out.
Back to the Gus G story for moment, your rise doesn’t end with Firewind becoming a “proper band”. Many of our readers will know you as Ozzy Osbourne’s new guitarist, how on earth did you get that gig?
I was invited to audition by an email. Somehow I'd made their shortlist. I don't know why or how, but I was on their radar, and of course I jumped at the chance. I had nothing to lose!
I went to LA learnt a bunch of songs, we jammed that day, and it was perfect. There was a really good vibe with Ozzy, and a couple of months later I was back to do my first gig with Ozzy Osbourne.
The next thing I knew I was going to the studio in his house, and he was playing me his new record, and I laid down some solos and ended up redoing all the guitar parts on Scream. It's been a pretty amazing ride so far.
What can I say, my life changed drastically from one day to the other.
Of course when you joined Ozzy’s band you replaced Zakk Wylde, one of the most iconic guitarists. How do you feel about following in his footsteps?
I don't think anyone can replace a guy like Zakk Wylde. You've just got to be yourself. You can't be Zakk Wylde, or Randy Rhodes, or Tony Iommi, or Jake E. Lee, you know?
If you look at it, each guy was a different character, but they all had a common theme (you've got to be able to play the Ozzy style) and you have to come from that school of heavy metal - but you have got to be your own man. And that's what I'm doing.
Do you get much chance to express yourself live?
There's a fine line between expressing yourself and honouring the song. You've got to play "Mr Crowley" note for note, but there are little parts here and there, where if you listen, you'll even hear Randy doing his own thing. There are little spaces all over the place where you can do your own thing, around the riffs. That's the good thing about this gig - it really showcases the guitarist.
That said, when it comes to the core track, you cannot change it. You know, it's not like you go in there and decide your going to play "Bark At The Moon" different. It is what it is. That's it.
It’s pretty incredible you’ve come full circle from getting your first taste of a real band at Ozzfest to headlining with Ozzy Osbourne. What’s it like being metal’s biggest headliner?
It's mind-blowing man. I first saw the Ozzfest in 98 in Miami. Joe Holmes was playing guitar then and it was just "Wow".
It was like a kid's dream to see let alone play on a stage like that, but then fast forward 5 years and I'm a part of band that's really happening now (Arch Enemy) and just getting to play on that stage is incredible…but fast forward another 5 years and you’re headlining Ozzy's own festival. It's fucking....words can't describe how awesome it is.
You know that movie Rockstar with Mark Walhberg. It's like that, it's that big a change, not that I was playing in cover bands, but going from fan to headline, it's indescribable.
That sounds unbelievably cool, but what’s it like in the studio? Are you part of a team or does what Ozzy says, go?
Well you have to understand when I joined the band the record was already written, they just didn't have the guitar player to play the parts. I had to treat the songs that were there with respect. It was very last minute. Now we'll have the chance to start from scratch. We've been writing together on the road, but nothing is set in stone. I can't say this is what's going to happen because it's not my call. When he's done with Sabbath he might want to go back to what we worked on, but if he wants something completely new that's cool.
I'm a guitar player you know, if he wants riffs, I have them, and I'll always be there to jam.
So back to Firewind, your last record Few Against Many was a real success. It felt like you changed your sound becoming more immediate and tub-thumping, was that a conscious choice?
I guess it was intentional because I wanted to make a different record. After Days Of Defiance I felt like we were copying what we were doing before. I wanted to create an album that would refresh our sound and revamp everything, without really getting away from who we are. The elements that were missing were the heaviness and the groove, I felt that we needed a more guitar-orientated sound and that's what we did.
Did you record this record Few Against Many while you were working with Ozzy?
I wrote a lot of the riffs while I was on the road with Ozzy. I sat down in hotel room while we had a break from the tour with Ozzy and I realized I had six or seven songs, but we didn't really go into the studio until after Ozzy was done.
Metal has this great ability to capture a sense of frustration, outrage and pain, and your home country has endured a torturous five years since the financial crash. Does that suffering and political outrage affect your music, or do you keep your music and politics apart?
It has affected all of us. I was on the road with Ozzy so I wasn't really home much, so I'd read the news and not really understand what was happening, but then I'd return home and you'd see how it was affecting the people who are close to you in their everyday life. They just don't have any money any more, all the wages are cut down, and businesses are closing every day.
It affects you subconsciously, even though I don't have a 9-to-5 job because you feel it from the people around you. And maybe it bleeds over and made the riffs more aggressive. It's funny because we called the record Days Of Defiance 3 years ago, before the crisis had really broken out here in Greece, but it was already in the stars.
We're not really a political band but we have tracks that talk about how people are like sheep and have been voting for the same crooks over and over again…and, well, you saw where it brought the country.
I think people looked at the album title "Few Against Many" and took it be about their country, but for us it was more personal, but it had a universal quality. Everyone has their own fight: whether it's against your own personal addictions or just to get to a better place, everyone has their own fight.
That’s certainly fair. On a lighter note what have you got in store for us in 2013?
I plan to be on the road until August touring the last Firewind record. We're mixing a live record from our Greek anniversary shows and I'm also working on a solo record that will hopefully come out this year.
What should we expect; instrumental/full band/vocals?
Ha I've not made my mind up. I've got some instrumentals that are heavy, and I've got some more traditional rock with vocals. I might try and blend it but I'm not sure, but what I can say is that the sound will be very different, and definitely refreshing.
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