By: Mike Jueneman
If you were a hard rock/heavy metal fan in the upper Midwest during the late 80’s and early 90’s, there’s a good chance you caught a Slave Raider show at some point. And if you’re a drummer, chances are even better that you were blown away by their powerhouse percussionist. But not much was known about the man hiding behind the massive multi-colored, post-apocalyptic looking drum kit (which at times would shoot sparks or be partially set on fire). Fans just knew that he played loud, solid, and bombastic beats. Way before Nicholas Cage made the action blockbuster, and long before Dwayne Johnson slipped into his first wrestling singlet, there was the one, the original, THE ROCK.
Growing up in Wisconsin, Rock Williams was drawn to music from a very early age. But despite his moniker, it wasn’t actual rock music that first piqued his interest. “My dad was in the military and he used to take me to a lot of parades. I was always struck by the drumline. I loved that THUD it would make in your chest as they passed by. I knew immediately that I wanted to make that sound.”
Williams got his first drum set in the seventh grade (a Stewart blue sparkle four-piece). He took his first lessons from a local jazz trumpeter named Doc Dehaven. In addition to that early jazz influence, he was also exposed to a lot of ragtime via his grandmother, who was an accomplished piano player. But his style would soon start to reflect the more popular music of the times.
Upon hearing Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath for the first time, hard rock immediately started to take over. “Bonham was a huge influence. There was no Internet, so I learned by listening to those records over and over. It was endless hours of lift the needle and move it back, lift the needle and move it back. A lot of us learned that way.”
Rock also credits growing up during a time where school dances would often have live cover bands as entertainment. “I learned a lot just by watching those drummers. I’d watch their hands, watch their feet, and it made that connection of how things worked. I’d have these moments of ‘ohhhhh…that’s how they do that’. I was lucky to see a lot of live bands early on—whether they were good or bad.”
By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Williams was playing in his own local bands. One of his earliest collaborators was Lance Sabin, a fellow classmate and guitar player. The two of them lived just blocks away from each other and both came from supportive and tolerant families…to an extent. “We’d basically set up in my basement and practice as much as we could. But usually after a few weeks, my parents would hit their limit so we’d have to pack everything up and haul our equipment over to Lance’s house. We’d practice at his place until we wore out our welcome there and then it was back to my place.”
Despite having to endure the occasional bug-out drills with their gear, Rock credits his family with being very supportive and encouraging. “This one time, my dad’s coworkers stopped by the house while the band was taking a break. So these guys are standing in the living room for a few minutes, when all of the sudden the band launches into the next song and 110 Db of noise starts blasting up through the floor. His friends just couldn’t understand how my dad put up with the racket but he simply told them, ‘I always know exactly where he is, and I know EXACTLY what he’s doing.’ My dad was always great that way.”
After high school, Rock spent the next few years making a comfortable living playing full-time with various cover acts in and around the Madison area. Most of the material consisted of the popular hits of the day, but he was always looking to hone his skills by slipping the occasional Yes or Zeppelin cover into the set.
In 1985, Rock found himself in a bit of a dilemma following a phone call from his former band mate. “I get this call from Lance (Sabin), who had already moved to the Twin Cities. He starts telling me all about this fantastic new singer he’s working with, and wants me to move up there to join the band. But I had a wife and two kids at the time, and I was making steady money back in Madison.” The distance and lack of financial security were enough to keep Rock adamant about staying in his hometown.
Despite the fact that this new band was quickly building a fan base, things weren’t quite gelling with the original drummer and Sabin still had his sights on his high school band mate. After placing yet another phone call to Madison, his persistence finally paid off. Williams agreed to come up for a weekend to check them out. “The first time I went to a Slave Raider show, I was standing backstage when Chainsaw (Caine) started doing his vocal warm ups. I was blown away, to the point of practically being immediately sold on the band right there.”
After the show, Williams met up with the rest of the band. Over a late night breakfast they discussed their goals, ambitions, and future plans. Two days later he was in the band and the classic-era lineup of Slave Raider was officially formed: lead vocalist Chainsaw Caine, Lance Sabin and Nicci Wikkid on guitars, bassist Letitia Rae, and The Rock on drums.
Once Williams joined the band, things started moving very quickly. “Suddenly I had to learn about 35 songs to start performing with this new band. Right away we were playing four to five shows per week, and it seemed like in no time we were in the recording studio.” The chemistry between the five band members, along with their grit-meets-glam stage appearance, made an immediate impact on the already thriving Twin Cities music scene.
In 1986, Slave Raider’s debut album Take the World By Storm was released. It was very well received by fans and critics alike. The band took home all four Minnesota Music Awards in the heavy metal category. It was a very active time in the local music scene. Soul Asylum took home Best New Band, and Prince performed at the awards ceremony that year.
Raider continued to build momentum by playing some of that era’s most celebrated rock clubs like Mr. Nibs, Ryan’s, and The Mirage. This eventually led to even bigger stages such as Roy Wilkins Auditorium and occasional opening slots for national acts as they came through town.
The band was on a seemingly unstoppable path, blazing a trail throughout the upper Midwest—almost literally. The group was already known for their over the top stage presence, but The Rock also liked to crank up the heat in his own unique way. His signature drum solos were known to include fire shooting from his riser, fountains of cascading sparks, and flaming drumsticks. And the fans ate it up. Pyrotechnics aside, his solos would become a featured highlight of their live show. Part bombast, part big band, and part Bonham, Rock’s solos would flow from one style to the next, wowing drummers with his skills while entertaining the rest of the audience by always keeping it musical and at times interactive with moments of call and response with the crowd.
Beyond the obvious chops on display, there was the actual kit itself. In keeping with the overall Raider aesthetic, Williams was determined to have his drums make a visual statement as well. “I discovered this local artist who called himself The Cosmic Chemist. And I had put together this hybrid kit that I wanted to look unrecognizable, with all the hardware completely covered. The Chemist thought I was crazy, because in order to cure the multiple colors of thick epoxy paint he used, the drums would have to be baked in an oven. We didn’t know whether the sound would be affected or if the shells would be completely ruined, but we ended up going through two rounds of the whole process. I was nervous the first time we got them set up and started placing the mics. But as soon as we heard the sound coming through the PA, our sound guy Geno and I got these big smiles on our faces and he simply said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I knew right then that I had something special.”
The sound of the Raider kit was as unparalleled as its look; big, booming, and cavernous, yet still articulate enough to allow the detail and speed of Rock’s playing to cut through any room. If his boyhood fantasy was to recreate the chest-rattling THUD of a drumline, that dream was surely realized with this one-of-a-kind kit.
The band continued making a name for itself by getting music videos on MTV, and appearing on several major motion picture soundtracks. They would record two more albums, and undergo a few lineup changes. Though some fans pined for the days of “the classic era”, others relished the addition of bass guitar virtuoso Tommy D (Dades). When he and Rock would pair up for combined drum and bass solos, it was like a mini clinic for any rhythm section.
Slave Raider forged ahead, playing countless shows across the upper Midwest circuit. There were occasional reunion shows with the classic lineup and some bigger festival shows, but following their 2002 grandstand performance at the MN State Fair, the train came to its official stop. The band members always remained friends, but went off in different musical directions. For Williams, this meant a lot of studio work. As a proven and dependable professional, he was in steady demand for recording sessions in his home area, Chicago, the Twin Cities, and beyond.
Rock also became a much sought-after teacher. With essentially no advertising, word of mouth quickly traveled around Madison. His close proximity to a major university allowed him to build an international roster of students, booking up to 57 lessons per week in his private studio.
Suddenly finding himself free of the demanding schedule of a working band, Williams was able to focus on writing—both songs and percussion ensemble pieces. He currently has over 30 original compositions printed, copyrighted, and graded by the Wisconsin School Music Association, which he plans on turning into a book.
His session work continued, and various band projects would come and go over the years. But after one particularly promising project folded after two years of working in the studio together, Williams found himself at a bit of a crossroads. “I was beyond frustrated when that project came to a sudden end. I didn’t really know what to do next. The studio owner could see in my face how discouraged I was. It was his idea to just keep on recording. He offered up his studio for as long as I needed it, so I decided to stay and just see what happens. I didn’t set out to make a record and I had no concept of an album in mind. But from my years of teaching lessons on bass, keys, etc, I had all these ideas burning inside. So I just kept working and working and before I knew it, I had over 30 songs recorded.”
The end result from those countless hours in the studio was Rock’s crowning achievement as a solo artist: the 2018 album Time Has No Power. Half of the 16 songs find Williams playing every instrument. But the album also features its share of guest musicians, including some local heavy hitters such as Sonny Thompson (New Power Generation, Nick Jonas) and Margie Cox (Prince, Dr. Mambo’s Combo).
Stylistically, the album is a potpourri of rockers, ballads, and studio exploration. The music is very drum-forward in its approach, and the lyrics are undeniably personal. Whether he’s venting his frustrations with the music business in “Manipulate Me”, or lamenting the loss of his father in “Believe”, it’s obvious Williams is writing from his heart. During the interview, he opened up about the genesis of the latter song. “I was in the studio when the call came that they were moving my father into hospice. There was about a two day vigil where the whole family was around to be with him because we knew the end was coming. At some point around 1am, I decided to take a little walk to get away from everything, and sitting at the end of this hallway was a grand piano. I sat down, and this song just started pouring out of me. My sister, who is also a music therapist, came over and sat down next to me. She started playing some of the upper register stuff. Pretty soon a crowd of family members and staff are gathered around, and the words start coming out, and we’re all in tears. The whole thing just came together like that. A few days later, I performed the song again at his funeral, with my daughter playing the drums.”
Another track with a personal connection to his father has no lyrics at all. It’s a multi-layered rhythmic composition titled “123”, which happens to be the bpm of the click track used during recording. Unlike so many solo drum songs, this one never spirals into the inevitable flurry of noise at the end or follows other drummer-in-the-spotlight clichés. The relatively slower, almost march-like tempo gives the track a more focused and deliberate pace as the ostinato and various forms of percussion are layered. This formula lends a musicality to the piece and creates a more approachable song-like structure.
Whether you’re a fan of Slave Raider, or you’re curious as to what a drummer might come up with when left to his own creative devices in the recording studio, you should check out the album. Physical copies are available through his website, www.rockdwilliams.com. You can also download or stream it from all of the usual platforms.
As for the future, Williams plans to continue writing, performing and doing session work wherever the job demands. For those who missed out the first time around, or for fans who just miss those memorable shows from the 80s and 90s, you’re in luck. Rock has confirmed with MN Drummer that he will be appearing at the upcoming 20th anniversary show for Hairball, which was originally scheduled to take place on March 28th at The Myth in Maplewood. Due to recent events, this show has been tentatively rescheduled for Friday, May 8th. Though he won’t reveal any details, he said that he will be involved with the show in some capacity. Tickets are on sale now. Don’t miss your chance to see this local legend slinging his sticks once again.
Masterpiece – Life At Its Best
P.R.E.S.H. – Nuclear Burn
Bezeulta – Wha
Bezeulta – Live
Slave Raider – Take The World By Storm
Slave Raider – What Do You Know About Rock and Roll?
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – License to Drive
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Nightmare on Elm Street 5 (The Dream Child)
Slave Raider – Bigger Badder Bolder
Organtuum – Self-Titled
Way Beyond Words – Self-Titled
From the Well – Self-Titled
Rock Williams – Time Has No Power
Special thanks to Don Anger & Rick Schwartz for providing the video.