HOLY MOTHER “Mother Knows Best” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

Mike Tirelli is one of the great voices in the metal scene. If you like soaring, melodic vocals, it’s impossible to go wrong with any of the numerous projects Mike has fronted, including RIOT, MESSIAH’S KISS and the subject of this piece, HOLY MOTHER.

How serious does Mike take the job? Serious enough to battle a major case of stomach cancer for more than 10 years and pretty much make that cancer his bitch. Serious enough to keep fighting in a scene where it’s tougher for classic, melodic metal every year. The proof of Mike’s competitiveness can be found in the new HOLY MOTHER album, “Face This Burn”, where the man sounds fresher and more engaged than ever. After hearing the album, I contacted the man and found out the history of what he’s been up to in recent years. It’s an enlightening and inspiring story, some of which you will now sample in this interview...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: I guess the most pressing question is, how are you doing physically, with all the cancer treatment and associated problems?

MIKE TIRELLI: I’m blessed, I’ll tell ya. You know, it’s been crazy the last 11 years or so since my diagnosis, but I’m totally over that. What they had to do to me is a full gastrectomy on me, where they took my whole stomach out. So I had to learn how to eat again and I’m still learning because I have little issues now and then. I just checked some out yesterday. They thought they might have to do some surgery to correct the problem, but the head doctor doesn’t want to do surgery. He thinks I can fix it with a stricter diet and maybe try some different probiotics and all that stuff.

WC: It’s always good when surgery is not the first answer.

MT: Right. You know, I found the doctor that did my original surgery from 11 years ago. He was in New York and then he went to Jersey but now is back. You know, the odd thing about it is that two weeks ago, I did an MRI through another doctor and they saw something like what they call “telescoping”, where the intestine is going into the pouch he built for me. It can be dangerous. I get pain sometimes. One time, it led me to severe pancreatitis because it blocked my intestine and all the enzymes went up into my upper intestine. But that was back when I was drinking, too. Not that I ever drank a lot. But I liked beer and I would drink a beer or two every day. That’s done. Now I pretty much just drink coffee and water, that’s it. I can’t drink sugary things. Since I haven’t had a beer in a couple of years, I know things won’t get to that severity again. So everything’s good!

WC: The last year and a half had throw some extra anxiety in due to Covid. I’d imagine you would be extremely vulnerable to it if you got it.

MT: It definitely was a concern and I was as careful as I can be. I’ve always been somewhat germaphobic because as a singer, you tend to get sick more. You get your instrument infected, you can’t sing well So I was always somewhat protective when we were on tour. The other guys would make fun of me. Well, good, stay away from me, then! If I get sick, I’m done, I can’t perform and we’re going home. So yeah, it was definitely a major concern. Basically we’ve been careful and knock on wood, we’re OK. I know people who have gotten it. One of my brothers go it. Lots of people have passed from it. But I’m looking to get the vaccine. We’ve got to get out and tour. Without that, we can’t do it. Say, where am I calling, where are you?

WC: I’m about half way between Chicago and Milwaukee, in Rockford. Used to be a great area for live heavy metal. I’m hoping the worst of this will be over in the next six months.

MT: Yeah, me, too! Enough is enough, we’ve got to get on with life. Businesses and the economy have got to keep going, you know…

WC: Was the title track to the new HOLY MOTHER album “Face This Burn” about your situation with cancer and medical treatment or was it about something completely different?

MT: It definitely pertains to some of my self-anxieties and fears and obstacles you have to overcome in life. There were  definitely a lot of obstacles for me to overcome. And I did. You learn from it, you appreciate things a lot more. Fear was the biggest obstacle for me to overcome. So yeah, that was the basis behind “Face This Burn”. Everybody has their own fears and anxieties. That’s what me and my partner Jim Harris wrote the song about.

WC: Was music the most important thing to get you through this? Was it the best kind of therapy you could get?

MT: For cancer or the pandemic?

WC: Both, I guess!

MT:  Music was great during the pandemic because I had more time to really focus on the songs I’d already written. I got together with Jim Harris, my drummer, and we were able to finish a lot of songs. With the cancer, it was a different story, because I wasn’t really thinking about music too much. It was really a life-threatening situation. It’s gastric cancer stage 3 and I wasn’t really thinking about my voice. I was just thinking about getting better. But after a while, when I was still undergoing chemotherapy, I started a show in Las Vegas called “Rock Star” where a bunch of different vocalists get to portray other famous vocalists. I was David Coverdale doing WHITESNAKE stuff, there was an AC/DC guy doing Bon Scott, there was an OZZY guy, a Steven Tyler guy, Robert Plant. That was great. I didn’t feel great, but it was good for me, it pushed me. Music is always there to give me a little boost. I’m always passionate about it. I’m excited  about our new album, the reviews are great and I really appreciate your review. As an artist, you feel great to read a review like that because you get exactly what I’m trying to do. You get it and that’s a great feeling. 

WC: It’s been quite some time since the last HOLY MOTHER album was out. Do some of the songs date back to that time or are they all relatively recent creations?

MT: Everything is very recent. I wanted to capture what made HOLY MOTHER successful back on the “Toxic Rain” and “Criminal Afterlife” and I wanted to mix that with something a little more modern. Obviously a lot of people are getting what I did. I wanted a great production on the record, I didn’t want to do anything half ass. That’s why I used Kane Churko. Kane’s dad is Kevin Churko, who’s produced the biggest bands in rock and metal right now, like DISTURBED, FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH, OZZY. He was a big part of the production. But the songwriting on the album is pretty much new. We did bring back the song “The River”, that was on the “Toxic Rain” record. That’s a very traditional metal song. I really think there’s a song on the album for every heavy metal and hard rock fan.

WC: I did note in my review that it was impossible to put in any sort of subgenre because it really hits almost everything.

MT: Yeah, which is dangerous sometimes! (laughs) You don’t want to be pigeonholed into one thing, so you have to write the same thing all the time. You got bands like JUDAS PRIEST that have been around a long time and people don’t want to hear anything too different out of them, you know. That’s been proven in the past.

WC: Where did you find your guitarist Greg Giordano? He’s a real revelation.

MT: Oh yeah, I love him, he’s great! I found him through Nick Lee, who plays in RIOT V with Mike Flint. I used to sing for the band RIOT and I’m good friends with them. We actually did a couple of shows a couple of years ago with them in a project I had over in Europe, in London. He recommended Greg. I wanted a guy who is very musical, which he is, and also a guy who can shred. I wanted that element. We’ve always had great guitar players in HOLY MOTHER. I wanted a guy who could bring it to the next level and really shred. That’s exactly what I got and I’m totally pleased with Greg.

WC: He actually played the bass on the album, too.

MT: Yeah, he did. I actually played a couple of bass parts, too. But the guy can really play and is a great asset to the band. He has his own band as well and it’s extremely progressive. He sings for them as well. The band is almost like DREAM THEATER. It’s called TURRIGENOUS.

WC: I noticed one particular name when I looked at the album credits. There’s a Violet Tirelli listed. Is that like a daughter, a niece?

MT:  My daughter is extremely musical. I think she’s even more talented than I am. I’m always writing, I was writing just the other day. I’m writing for the next album. I’ve got 40, 50 ideas for songs. You know the way kids are today? She’s actually 13 now and she sang on some of the tracks. It was her voice on the chorus of “No Death Reborn”, recorded when she was like 10. She’s got great pitch, almost perfect’s amazing. The other day she comes in and she’s on the phone with two of her friends. Always on the phone, facetiming. I go, can I get 5 minutes out of ya? It’s like a bother to her. She puts the headphones on and she’s still talking to her friends.She puts the phone down and I say, give me something Middle Eastern  and dark. It took her one time to do it. I gave her three tracks all blended together and she did it without a hitch. So yeah, she’s amazing. She even gives me ideas for melodies on some of the songs.

WC: Did you have any influence on the kind of music she listens to? Is she a metalhead?

MT: Ahhh, good question! Kind of! A lot of the music she listens to, I’m not quite into, I have to be honest with you. But I can appreciate some things. I also am in an 8 piece band that plays Top 40 stuff, I’m in a wedding band, so I do every kind of music. So I’m always learning and trying to put what I learn into what I grew up with, which is classic heavy metal. So yeah, I have an influence on her and vice versa. I let her sing a melody, something I would never think about or come up with. And I’ll go, wow, I would never sing that. And then I will sing it in my voice, in my style, and sometimes it really works.

WC: It’s got be great to have a resource like that right in your own family…

MT: Yeah, but it’s like pulling teeth to get her in there. She was in the studio for like 10 minutes and she looks at me...can I go now? I’d love to have her in there for an hour or two hours, it would be a world of difference possibly.

WC: That’s the modern attention span, which is frightening, when you think about it.

MT: It really is. I’m very ADHD, but I tell ya, man, it’s hard fitting in today’s day and age. It’s like, boom! 

WC: It doesn’t help things intellectually, because people don’t ponder anything more. Getting back to HOLY MOTHER, some of the influences on the band are fairly obvious, but what are some of the ones that people wouldn’t pick up on?

MT: That’s a great question. I mean, the obvious is fairly easy to spot. Ronnie James Dio has always been one of my heroes. His voice is incredible, powerful. I love him always. David Coverdale, I always liked. But some of the stuff you wouldn’t pick up on? I would have to say it’s hard to pinpoint one artist vocally. Hmmmm. I would say among the newer bands, DISTURBED, musically But vocally? There’s so many different things I’m thinking about when I’m singing. I’d say Chris Cornell…

WC: That makes sense, because I do hear some SOUNDGARDEN on some of your songs.

MT: Yeah, definitely. Chris was great, one of the best ever. But it’s hard to pick one, because there are so many going through my head all the time.

WC: Is “The Prince of The Garden” a real person, based on somebody you know, or is that a made up character?

MT: That song was actually written back in the 90’s ,around 1997, just before “Toxic Rain”, when we tried to change our style. We brought it back and redid it because it’s a great song, a great ballad. As far as being a character, it really wasn’t so much of a character, it was more of a fantasy thing. Jim wrote the lyrics for it, I wrote the melody on it. We basically rewrote the lyrics to make it relevant to what’s going on today. The chorus is pretty much based on what I’ve been through….”I’m alive!”(sings vocal line). That’s what I’m feeling. But the Prince of the Garden is basically a fantasy, a made up character.

WC: What’s the song on the new album that you most relate to or you’re most proud of?

MT:  Most of proud of? That’s really difficult to say. Do you mean the one I like the best? Every time I listen to it, something new hits me. Hey, that’s really good, I like it! Right now, I’m thinking I really like “No Death Reborn” and “The Truth”.

WC: That’s the sign of a strong album, when you have a hard time picking a favorite.

MT: That’s a good thing, right? Like having a bunch of all-stars on your football or baseball team.

WC: Even before all the headache of Covid, the American metal scene was not doing so hot. How frustrating is that to you? In Europe it’s still strong and other countries are starting to rise, but it’s very hard for quality acts to make any kind of a dent here anymore.

MT: Right now, the market is really flooded. Everybody is putting out something. With Covid, they had a little more time to work on things. That makes it more of a struggle. But I really agree, it’s very frustrating right now. I need to get out and do something. I need to sing not only in my car, where I do all my voice exercises, and not only in my studio, where I’m singing on the album, but I really need to get out and get on a loud PA and push it, you know? It’s extremely frustrating not only for myself, but for all musicians. The bands that played 250 shows a year like DISTURBED, they’re probably more frustrated than I am, if that’s possible. I mean, HOLY MOTHER is not touring and all the other projects I work with are basically shut down. Even on my wedding gig, I was making a lot of money...a lot of money! We do very well with that. But that’s really doing much either.

WC: Speaking of your other bands, will we be hearing anything from MESSIAH’S KISS or any other project we’ve involved with? 

MT: MESSIAH’s KISS, we’ve actually been recording for five years now. We have a full album that is pretty much done. We’re ready to release something next year.

WC: Would that be on Massacre Records, where HOLY MOTHER is?

MT: I believe so. I wanted to release MESSIAH’S KISS album 3 years ago. I wanted to keep it going, but sometimes those guys drag their feet a bit. I’m always pushing, pushing. Me and Wayne Banks, he’s the bass player for MESSIAH’S KISS, we’re always writing. You wouldn’t believe how many songs we have. We’re trying to stay relevant, stay out there. But you know, by 2022, we’re definitely going to have something out there. I’m excited about it.

WC: That was the first band with you singing that I heard, sometime in the late 90’s.

MT: No, that couldn’t have been it. The first album for MESSIAH’S KISS was “Prayer For the Dying” in 2002.

WC: That must be it. Man, I’m getting old, everything’s starting to blur...(laughs)

MT: Yeah, haha! The “Dragonheart” album was the one I really loved, I thought that was great. That was 2007. Herman Frank from ACCEPT mixed it and produced it.

WC: If you could ask any three people from history to dinner, who would they be?

MT: Musicians or anybody?

WC: Could be anybody.

MT: Well, I’d definitely ask one of my heroes, Ronnie James Dio. I’d love to have dinner with him. He had stomach cancer, too, so I feel even more of a connection with him. I might even ask Mike Piazza. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him?

WC: Sure, the baseball player!

MT: There you go. You know he loves heavy metal?

WC: Yeah, I know he did something with ANTHRAX…

MT: Yeah, he’s friends with Nicko McBrain, Eddie Trunk from “That Metal Show”. I’ve actually met him. I met him in Miami at a store. He’s a really good guy, we talked about music. He knows the band RIOT which I used to sing for. When RIOT played a few years ago in Italy, he came up on stage on one of the songs called “Thundersteel”. I wish I would have been in the band then! So Mike Piazza would be the guy.

WC: That leaves one more.

MT: OK, I got one for you. I’m trying to spread it out a little. Maybe Chris Cornell? That would be a great choice.

WC: That would make for a heck of a band right there.

MT: Yeah, Mike Piazza plays drums as well! 

WC: Now this doesn’t have to be from HOLY MOTHER, it can be from any band you’ve ever been associated with. Have you ever had any “Spinal Tap” moment where things went haywire that you could share with the fans?

MT: Oh God. Uhhhh...yeah! (laughs) This is one from when we were on tour in Europe. We had a tour managed named Damon. We were doing a tour by train...we used a train to get to all the venues and all that. Out of the 12 shows we did, it never worked out like that. We’d be in the wrong location. We’d wind up in Amsterdam when we were supposed to be in Belgium. That was a total disaster. But when you look back, it’s funny.

WC: They weren’t funny at the time, but after a few years go by, you find the humor in it.

MT: We took the trains and we were all frustrated and tired. Well, one time we saw a train in Germany and all the people on the train were partying. They were drinking, eating rich food like caviar….oh my God, it seemed like paradise! I can’t wait to get on that train! Finally, the other train that connects to that one shows up and we get on it. I was like, I can’t wait for that first beer! Because we were really struggling to get to the next show. We had a day off and we were so excited to get on a train that has great food, great drinks and relax and party. We get on that train and we were like, where did that train, the dining train go? We talked to one of the conductors and he was like, oh no, that train is not at the station, it’s not there no more! We were like really disappointed and were like, can we please just get one beer? That was a funny moment.

WC: Well, I see we’re going to have to put you guys in the cattle car…

MT: Yeah, exactly! We saw all these people partying, drinking and dressed up. Well, we’re not dressed up right now but we’ll get some drinks, some nice food on this next trip It didn’t work out…

WC: Well, that’s rock and roll…

MT: Yeah, yeah, holy schmoe! (laughs)

WC: Got any last message for all the fans out there?

MT: Yeah, I definitely do! I want to say to fans of HOLY MOTHER, we’re getting ready to get out there and play as much as possible. Hopefully everyone stays healthy and in good spirits as well.