The ’80s are best remembered as the dawn of the “hair band,” and Norwegian band, TNT was part of that “hair-raising” experience.
It wasn’t unusual to hear TNT’s name mentioned in the same breath as Helloween or Queensrÿche, as its American-born singer Tony Harnell, whose mother was an opera singer, got compared to the likes of Geoff Tate and Bruce Dickinson [Iron Maiden].
The group was at high point in 1987, after releasing their second album, Tell No Tales , on Mercury Records. “Everyone’s A Star” and “10,000 Lovers in One” were blasting on metal radio and the band had won a Spellemannspris award (the Norwegian answer to the Grammys) for Rock Album of the Year.
TNT also found success with Knights of the New Thunder and Intuition (which, not coincidentally, have the letters in them), selling, along with Tell No Tales , nearly half a million each worldwide and racking up on several gold and platinum records from Sweden, Norway and Japan.
But the guys found themselves at a standstill with the release of 1992’s Realized Fantasies . “It was a very difficult record to record. We were having trouble with the producer and internal problems. It took forever to record and we spent tons of money,” Harnell says. “It’s difficult for me to even listen to that record because I immediately associate it with the period of time I was going through.”
Although it spawned one minor hit ,”Purple Mountain’s Majesty,” the band members went their separate ways. During that time, guitarist Ronni Le Tekro and bass player Morty formed a progressive rock band called Vagabond while Harnell leant his (rumored to be five-octave) voice to a variety of side projects.
When Harnell wasn’t singing lead on Morning Wood’s (with Al Pitrelli [Dream Theater]) self-titled acoustic album, he was working as a session singer, singing back-up for Taylor Dayne and Contemporary Christian singer Kathy Troccoli.
In 1997, TNT reformed and released Firefly to mixed reviews. Six months later, a disgruntled Tony Harnell left the band. “I wasn’t happy with the way things were going on a business level,” he says. “There were some things happening that I didn’t agree with so I told the guys, ‘Get that shit together and I’ll be back.'”
He refuses to comment on the source of his irritation because the band is still working with some of those people. But the good news is things are smoothed over and the band did eventually get its shit together. With the release of Transistor , the band’s best album since Tell No Tales , everything is back on track.
I usually have to listen to an album a while before I choose my favorites, but, right away, I liked “Fantasia Española,” “Because I Love You,” and “The Whole You’re Inn.”
It’s interesting that you picked a wide variety of things. “Fantasia Española” means “Spanish Fantasy.” We wrote the album in Spain, so I was very influenced by my surroundings. I just love that song to death because it sounds sort of traditional. It has that traditional ballad melody to it. It has a Spanish feeling and flavor. I’m sucker for ballads.
In the ’80s, I was inspired by all that screaming and operatic stuff you did, but right now, I enjoy listening to your quieter stuff.
Obviously, I’m experimenting with a lot of different vocal styles on this album. I like having fun with voice. Sometimes I like singing in the old style. Sometimes I like singing as hard and heavy as I can, like on “The Whole You’re Inn.” That was a funny story, because we were sitting around hung over one night, watching Leaving Las Vegas , which is the worst movie to watch when you’re hung over. [The Nicholas Cage character] is staying at this hotel called “The Whole You’re Inn.” [Actually, the hotel was called “The Whole Year Inn,” but Nicholas Cage, feeling down and out, imagined it to be “The Hole You’re In.”–C.H.] And we needed to write one more song for the album and we knew we wanted to be a kind of heavy, spontaneous, kind of live-sounding thing. And we were going to do it the next day. So I turned to the guys and I said, “That’s the name of the song we’re going to do tomorrow. I don’t care what it is. That’s the name of the title.” We went into the studio the next day, and I guess it was probably about a half hour that we basically had the whole song put together from scratch. The drummer [Frode Lamoy] started playing the beat. Ronni started playing the riff. Morty came in and then I sang the melody almost instantly all the way through.
I know you joined TNT from a band called the Jackals. How did you hook up TNT? Were you in Norway at the time?
The Jackals were a club band in New York, and we were working hard, trying to get a record deal. And we were playing a gig in New York City, and, after the gig, these two guys came back stage. One of them was Mike Varney. He had heard of me because he’s that kind of guy. He’ll hear about some obscure guitar player in Indiana, for example, or some place in the middle of nowhere. So he brought [TNT’s] manager out to the show. They had this [manager] in Long Island, at the time. And they said, “We’ve got this band in Norway. They’re great. You ought to check it out.” And I said, “Yeah, why not?” So they gave me a tape. I took it home and I was blown away. It was that good. And it was exactly the kind of music I wanted to do at that point in my life. I wanted to do an album and I hadn’t yet done one. So I agreed to do it, but I didn’t agree to join the band. I said, “I’ll go do the record and see what happens.” So, a week later, I was flying to Norway and I recorded everything in about a week. I was like, “I don’t know, guys.” They were trying to get me to stay. And I said, “I don’t know what I want to do.” So we all flew back to New York together and we gave the album to Polygram in New York.
So TNT already had a record deal?
We had a small record deal in Norway and that was it. Otherwise, I would have joined immediately. It was just a small deal and I really didn’t think much of it. So we came back, and, within one week, we had an international deal with Polygram and, of course, I joined the band at that point (laughs).
What kind of music were you doing with the Jackals?
It was hard rock and heavy metal, more heavy metal, I’d say, than TNT ever was. It was more along the lines of Judas Priest or Accept, or something like that.
What inspired Firefly ? It was kind of a smorgasbord of influences.
Yeah, a banquet, sort-of-speak. Well, we hadn’t been together in five years, and we had all picked up new influences. We really didn’t quite know what we wanted to do, but we knew we didn’t want to go back. We caught a lot of flack for that record. I’m not going defend it, because defending it means that there was something wrong with it. But I will say we couldn’t have gone back to doing something like Tell No Tales or Intuition , because it wasn’t in us. So, to go back and try to do it would’ve been dishonest. And it would’ve really been obvious that we were getting back together to try to cash in on whatever we could. So we just wanted to keep some integrity, be completely honest and do exactly what we felt like doing. And, for better or worse, that’s what Firefly is. There were some really great ideas on there. I just don’t think we finished the album because we did it really fast. And we didn’t really know what we were doing…
Your record company wasn’t giving you any direction?
We produced it ourselves and the record company was based out of Japan. Yes, when they came to Norway the first time and heard the basic tracks, they were not real thrilled (laughs). And when we were mixing the album, we invited them to come to London and they did. And they were not thrilled, again, even more so. So we did have a big backlash from that. Had we done Intuition II , we probably would have sold bucketloads of albums over there, but you know, it’s a difficult thing, because as an artist trying to have some integrity, I don’t see us being in the same room with all your other bands that are out there touring right now. I don’t want to even mention one name out there because it wouldn’t be fair. But you know who I’m talking about. They’ve been out on the road. They have new record deals with various people like [John] Kalodner [Columbia Records’ A&R guy], and that’s fine. It’s great that they’re doing that. I don’t want to talk down about what they’re doing, but I don’t see us as that “thing.” I don’t see us a reunion or a nostalgia band, or anything like that. Whether we sell, or not, we’re attempting to be vital artists.
You seemed to have struck a balance between wanting to use your varied influences in Firefly and wanting to go into the new millennium with Transistor .
I think so. We pulled the reigns back a little bit and said, “Okay, let’s still sound like TNT. But let’s take it somewhere.” Let’s take the best elements of what we used to do and really make it sound contemporary.” And I think we accomplished that.