“Even today I try and get things as 99% right as possible. Paul Stanley phoned me up to talk about doing the shoot for his solo album “Live To Win”. I said “Paul have you got a makeup artist you want to use?” and he goes “Neil I don’t need a makeup artist, we are going to get everything retouched afterwards anyways”. I said “Paul don’t you want to start off with the very best possible image to begin with, why fix it in the mix?” That’s just not my mentality on how I work, you have to get everything as perfect as possible to start with. When I get hired by an art director, they come to me because they know what I can do and that they will have that much less work and time involved in Photoshop”.
In the rock n’ roll business for more than 40 years, photographer Neil Zlozower has watched more than his fair share of rising stars from behind the camera. Having also spent significant time with the likes of Motley Crue, Ratt and Van Halen, as they made their way to the top of the charts, “Zloz” got to know the behind-the-music business of rock long before VH1. Beginning his career as a glorified fan, Zlozower has gone on to become one of the most sought-after photographers in the biz and his book releases thus far as displayed on this page are testimony to this.
Giving up a most generous 1 hour of his time, the conversation I had with Zloz was a truly killer insight into the world of rock n roll photography and rock n roll itself!
As well as reading this interview from start to finish, we also highly recommend you check out Zloz’s book releases as featured and discussed on this page!
What was the point when it first occurred to you that music photography might be something that you would want to spend your life doing?
Well to be honest with you even though I am 55 years old, I still don’t know if that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life! I started doing this because I was a glorified fan going to rock shows before I was an actual photographer. My first concert was Cream when I was 13 years old. I mean what a way to start off your music career with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Back then I was a Rolling Stones fanatic and I used to go to Hollywood Boulevard with a friend of mine and go buy 8×10 photos of the Stones and then take it back to my bedroom and put the photo on the wall. Then in 1969 going to shows I started bringing my camera in, which back then you could because they didn’t have the big bouncers and stuff like that. So I started off shooting The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat, then I would go back, make prints and hang them on the wall because I was a fan you know. Then in high school there was a record shop across from where I lived so one day I decided to go to the record shop and see if I could sell some prints there. We stuck a deal where we would sell them for one buck each. I got 60 cents, the owner got 40 cents…then next thing you know I am making $30 to $40 a month, which was a nice amount of money back in those days. Next thing you know I planned on going to the Arts Centre School of College to take photography classes after I finished high school. But you know what, I never really planned on being a rock n roll photographer and shoot rock bands for a living. But then whilst taking my pre-requisite classes I kept getting calls from the record company saying “can you shoot Earth Wind & fire, can you shoot this, can you shoot that”. So finally I had to make a decision and go look…..I can either pass up on these jobs as they are coming in and instead go to Arts College for 4 years and come out being a technically great photographer. But the experience I was getting, the real life experience, was something that money couldn’t buy. So I decided to fuck school and take the real life experience I am getting right now. So I guess it was at that point I decided to become a rock n roll photographer!
Do you ever think we will have a new breed of “rock photographers” coming through that could end up being just as famous as the bands they shot, as has happened in days gone by?
Well not anymore. When I first started doing it in 69,70,71 there was only a handful of rock photographers doing it. Obviously there was the granddaddy of all rock photographers, my idol, Jim Marshall who to me is the greatest rock photographer that ever lived. Jim used to shoot all the greats like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Allman Brothers, Janis Joplin, so he to me is the living god. Then there was Emerson Lowe and Ed Careff, but there weren’t a lot of people doing it back then. But now, everybody wants to have a camera, and I get calls every other day from people saying “Neil, I wanna do what you do, what’s the best way to get started” and I am like don’t even bother you are just going to be in for a life long struggle, especially when you have people like me and Ross Halfin who is an amazing photographer and we have been doing it for 30 to 40 years. How are you going to start off and compete against people like myself and Ross? Unless you have some kind of specific, unique look that nobody else has.
Nikki Sixx in the foreword to your recent book “Motley Crue – A Visual History” says of you “I liked him right away. He was one of us.” Not to downplay your photography abilities…but do you think Nikki’s words in a large part define your success? In that you can relate to the artists you shoot on a level where they are far more comfortable and co-operative when you shoot them?
Well yeah, first of all you have got to build the trust. If you are a photographer and you go off to meet Nikki Sixx and you have your suit and tie and little point Dexter glasses and you are all clean cut and you don’t look the part…how is that going to work? Look at me, I love listening music, I am a rock n roll photographer. If you said to me, Neil, if you had to give up listening to music or give being a photographer which would it be? Well it would be giving up being a photographer as I couldn’t live a life without music. When I am in the pit shooting these guys I am shaking my head and rocking and I know how to anticipate their movements and things like that. So you could say I live the life too, I like the same things rock n rollers like. I guess I fit in. As I said, it’s all about building the trust and working that trust.
Have you made the transition from film over to digital photography? What are your thoughts on whether digital photography has helped or harmed music photography as an art form?
You know what, I put it off for a long time. One of my best friends in the whole world owns my lab, it’s one of the biggest labs in the while world, A&I Photographic Services and when all his other clients were bringing in digital, I was still bringing in film and he was like “Neil one of these days you have got to go digital” and I am like “I’m never going digital, I’m never going digital”. Well I started off on digital by accident shooting some jewellery photos for the chance to make $70,000. I couldn’t do it on film, so I had to do it on digital so I bought a little low end 7 mega pixel Canon Rebel Digital camera with one lense. Well that turned out to be a wash, I am not a jewellery photographer, I am a rock n roll photographer. I don’t want to do videos, I don’t want to shoot sports, I do shoot scantily clad hot chicks here and there, but that is mostly for my own pleasure, I don’t make any money doing it! So anyway, one night I got a call from my friend at St Louis Music and he’s like ” Neil I need you to do a shoot with the DJ from the Blackeyed Peas tomorrow and I need the shot approved and here with me in St Louis in 36 hours and we need to add our logos and then get it back to LA by Friday” And I am like fuck, the only way I can get this done is by shooting digital and emailing the shots back and forth. So anyway, I did it all on digital, but at that point I still wasn’t a big fan of digital. About 2 weeks later I went into my lab and the girl that works there says ” hey Neil, since you had never done digital before, we made you a print so you could see how the print looks”. Well I wasn’t expecting anything but they made me this 14×17 inch print and my mouth dropped open. I was like “oh my god this is fucking spectacular”. The sharpness was amazing, the colors were amazing, everything was fucking amazing about the print. At that point I was sold on digital. So I continued to use that Canon Rebel for a lot of the shoots I did and never had a limitation. Then later I had to do a Billy Sheehan shoot for Yamaha and they wanted to make some posters and stuff so they rented me a Canon 5D and that one was a 12 mega pixel and that one the quality was even more insane. Then after that I bought myself one of those, then bought another Canon 5D which I was I am still using for all my digital stuff.
For aspiring rock photographer’s out there reading this (for which I am one!), when you are behind the lens shooting a rock show, what are the key things YOU look for before pressing SNAP?
First of all I want to make sure the guitarist has only got one chin because when you shoot guitarists and stuff sometimes they lean back, and I see photographers sometimes shoot the most unflattering photos of people. It’s amazing the stuff I see published in magazines. Doesn’t the photographer have an eye? How can they shoot a photo of this guy and make it so unflattering? Don’t they a mouth? Can’t they say “bro the way you are posing makes it look like you have 3 or 4 chins” so do this instead. But I think some photographers are blind and then how can magazines even print some of these photos? Is the art director blind too? I have worked with some amazing art directors like Tom Jermann who to me is the best art director I have worked with in my life. He has done my Motley book, my Van Halen book, he works for Kiss, he works for Def Leppard and the biggest bands in the world. I have worked with other art directors who I don’t even want to work with because they are just going to make my work look shitty.
Then secondly, it’s all about light. I’ll be in the photography pit and see these “junior” photographers shoot photos and there is absolutely no light on the subject. I’ll be thinking what are you, a retard? Do you think your digital camera is that good that’ it’s actually going to pick up an image and it’s going to look good, when there is absolutely no light on this person?
That’s really my major 2 criteria. Making the subject look as flattering as possible and making sure there is light on the subject.
Given your comments above about where photographers are at today, what are your thoughts then on the whole concept of photoshop to overcome imperfections in the original shot?
You see, I learned the old way, all my cameras are manual, even though I have automatic on my digitals, I never use it. Every time I do a photo session or go to a live show, I don’t use auto focus, I don’t use auto exposure. I think with my brain! With 40 years experience going back to the old days when there was no Photoshop, if you were going to make a great photo you had to look at all the variables that make a great photo. Nowadays photographers of today don’t “make a great photo” they “create an image”. They may take the sky from this frame, then take someone’s head from another frame and then put it on the shoulders from another frame and then take it against a white backdrop and put fire behind the photo etc etc. Back in the old days you shot the photo how you wanted it to be and didn’t just “fix it in the mix”.
Even today I try and get things as 99% right as possible. Paul Stanley phoned me up to talk about doing the shoot for his solo album “Live To Win”. I said “Paul have you got a makeup artist you want to use?” and he goes “Neil I don’t need a makeup artist, we are going to get everything retouched afterwards anyways”. I said “Paul don’t you want to start off with the very best possible image to begin with, why fix it in the mix?” That’s just not my mentality on how I work, you have to get everything as perfect as possible to start with. When I get hired by an art director, they come to me because they know what I can do and that they will have that much less work and time involved in Photoshop.
Looking back on the specific era of the 1980’s now in 2009, what are your thoughts on whether the imagery has left a stronger legacy than the music itself?
Not really, not for me. I still love a lot of the music from the 80’s, Ratt and believe it or not I still put on that first Poison album every so often. You had AC/DC, but how do you beat an album like Back In Black, when you also have Highway To Hell with Bon Scott! The 90″s certainly sucked, I hated grunge which was all songs about “my life is miserable”. Bands like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden were making millions of dollars but they were probably getting ripped off by their management too. The 90’s were terrible musically, but in the 80’s there was great music made.
Whilst we are talking about this era, strictly from a musical point of view, what are some of your hard rock albums from the 80’s?
Well obviously Van Halen, when they broke into the scene they lit the fire under all of those LA bands asses. I liked Motley Crue but I didn’t really go home and listen to Motley Crue. I loved the guys as people and all. Believe it or not, I also loved the first Poison album, but not crazy about anything else after that. Then of course you have got Appetite For Destruction, which totally changed the face of the music industry at the time. After Appetite, I noticed that all the bands from Poison to Motley and all the other pretty boy bands, their little clothes got a little bit more raunchy and rowdier and things like poofed up hair started coming down and it wasn’t all hairspray and all. Then there is another great band from the 80’s called The Bulletboys which I call “The Bulletpigs” who’s first album was fucking insane, that was one smoking red hot album.
You briefly mentioned above about the 90’s being terrible musically, how then were the 90’s for your work?
Well actually that was a pretty bad time for all the photographers and the music industry. Back in the 80’s there was about 50 American rock n roll magazines. So if you did a Bon Jovi shoot or a Poison shoot or a Motley shoot you, could take that session and sell that session to 50 different magazines. The money was fucking rolling in. Then all of a sudden when grunge came in it wasn’t cool to be a rockstar anymore. I remembered the first shoot I did with Nirvana and it would have to be the most pathetic, miserable photo shoot I ever did in my whole life! So given it wasn’t cool to be a rock star and given all the “rock gods” had left, all the magazines started folding. Bands like Motley were in their John Corabi period, Ratt were past their prime. there was no more bands wanting to do photo shoots, none of them wanted to pose or cooperate anymore, they were all like “shut up, we are going to do what we want to do, we are just going to sit here and talk and not even look at you, so you better shoot while we are talking”. But nobody wanted to look at photos of that!!
In 94/95 I was having a hard time paying the mortgage on the studio I am still sitting here in now, the same location I have been shooting for the last 30 years. So I had to do some fancy restructuring of my business so instead of one day shooting Danger Danger on spec and one day doing Bulletpigs and one day doing Motley. When I was doing these shoots on spec, I could sell each of them to the magazines, each one would cost me about $300-$400 to do, so when you had nowhere left to sell them, I was fuck that. Why should I shoot this band for free, which is what “on spec” means because I was taking the risk and will make my money later on when a magazine purchases your .
So I decided to start working with Fender and Gibson and Sabian and Pearl Drums etc etc. And that’s what I did and every single job I did was a paid job as these companies would give you a certain amount of money to go and shoot whoever and whatever. So that’s what I did. I am a pretty brutal survival type of guy. I was never going to let the business win over me. I am always going to win. Period!
In the early 90’s, music underwent a major change and with it as did the visual aspects for which the 80’s hard rock era was best known. As with many bands with whom you would of worked with, in 1992 for example you shot Warrant for their ‘Dog Eat Dog’ album, which was when they changed their image to an all black wearing, harder edged vibe rather than just being the ‘Cherry Pie guys’. Were you getting asked for advice from bands such as Warrant into that image change or did bands merely come to you and say “this is what we want to do” turn it into photo’s Zloz?
Well I started working with Warrant in 87’, they were one of the late bloomers that did have a lot of success and when they come out they had that Poison kind of look, but by 1989 they toned it down a little bit. But I was the one who did that photo shoot for them where they we did change their image from the pretty little feminine clothes to the black leather pants and black leather coats and did change their sound. But the next thing you know the fans didn’t want them anymore.
Following on from that, you would’ve seen a lot of change in a number of bands you have shot over the years, made evident in your Van Halen and Motley Crue published books. However, what artists stand out over the years as making the biggest change from one shoot to the next, whether it be image change or their evolution into legitimate “rockstars”?
Well you have Jon Bon Jovi, obviously. I first shot Jon in 1981 and I even remember back when Bon Jovi opened up for Ratt. Then by 1986 Slippery When Wet came out, and Jon was a rockstar. But I guess it all depends what you mean by rockstar? David Lee Roth I started working with in 1978 and he was a little lewd and crewd and certainly not as polished as he was in 1984. To me Slash is a rockstar, Tommy Lee is a rockstar. Depends again what you really mean by “rockstar”.
You’ve watched a lot of great performers up close; Phil Lynott, Mick Jagger, Queen, the list is endless…..out of all of these, what is it about David Lee Roth that made such an impression on you?
To me, David Lee Roth is probably the greatest entertainer that has ever lived. For starters, I love Dave’s voice. He is not a Steve Perry or one of those guys, but I personally hate Steve Perry’s voice. Some people think Steve Perry is the greatest singer that has ever lived, but his voice makes me sick. I like a voice to be a nasty, like a Bon Scott or a David Lee Roth or an Ian Gillain. I love David Coverdale too, he is one of the greatest singers ever. But David Lee Roth to me is the greatest entertainer, not singer, but entertainer. First of all, he knows how to jerk the audience and get them off. For instance, you would be at a Van Halen show and between songs one of the roadies would come out with a roll of toilet paper. He would come to the front of the stage and duck down and throw it at Dave’s stomach or head or waist or whatever. Then Dave would stand up there and he would turn his head to the left, then turn it to the right, then turn it to the left, then turn it to the right….then he would say “I know who threw that, I know who threw that…..and after the show, I am going to fuck your girlfriend”. To me, that’s fucking brilliant…
I have seen a lot of bands and I have to admit, there was this band from the States in the 70’s called Black Oak Arkansas with their lead singer Jim Dandy, and I used to see a lot of Jim Dandy in David Lee Roth. I am also a big fan of this old singer Louie Prima who did the original version of “Just A Gigolo”. When I see Dave now and his moves and his character, I see a lot of Louie Prima. So Dave’s not 100% original, he has his influences, but who is these days? Nothing is original anymore, it’s just like my photo’s, I take a little of this and a little of that!
People can chase down your Van Halen and Motley Crue books for all your thoughts on working with those 2 bands, so give us a memory or two of shooting the following artists:
Black N Blue – I love Black N Blue, they are one of my favourite bands, especially their last two albums “In Heat and Nasty Nasty”. Probably my favourite tour experience I ever have had with any band was being in Texas with Black N Blue and I have been on leer jets and on big tour buses blah blah. But we were in some 8 seater van going from one shithole Texas city to another shithole Texas city and we were all sharing each others Playboy and Penthouse magazines and fighting with each other and cutting the cheese. You know that tour wasn’t let’s stay at the Four Seasons or anything like that, it was lets stay at some shithole. That was one of the greatest tour experiences of my life.
Zakk Wylde – I love Zakk. Zakk’s like my little baby brother. I started working with him in 1988 and to this day he is like family. About a year and a half ago, Zakk lived at my condo, on my couch for 8 days and that was one of the most interesting experiences of my entire life. I love Zakk dearly, he is one of my most favourite people in the whole world.
Guns N Roses – GNR is the band that changed the 80’s and changed music. They were like the rock n roll version of grunge. When they came to my studio for the first time I was like “hey guys, look in the lense, give me the poses”, but they didn’t want any of that. They were like, “Neil, we will pose for you, but we are going to do it our way”. Of course I was a little pissed off, but we ended up doing that shoot and now those photo’s are kind of iconic as I think they are the last ones of Axl with his hair all teased up.
Dimebag Darrell – Dimebag was great, I loved him. He was an amazing guitar player. I wasn’t a Pantera fan musically, it was a little too hard and a little noisy for me, even though it wasn’t as hard like Slayer. I liked Dime a lot and the whole world misses him. That was probably to me the most tragic incident that ever happened in rock n roll, Dime getting shot on stage. Other than the incident back East where 100 plus people died in the fire at the Great White show, which was the greatest tragedy at a rock n roll show where the venue caught fire. Let’s hope nothing like that ever, ever happens again, that was just terrible.
Slipknot – I love the Slipknot guys, but I am not a big fan of their music, but maybe that’s just me being old and not appreciating it. Just the other week I did a big humungous shoot with them and had all 9 of them in my studio in Hollywood and that was fast and furious like it always is. I mean getting 9 of those guys together and work with is a pretty difficult thing. I love the guys as people, they are really really nice guys. You wouldn’t know that by seeing them onstage as they are so angry and brutal and nasty and ferocious, but offstage they are the sweetest guys you can imagine.
Randy Rhoads – I knew Randy since about 77′, 78′ and he was a very quiet shy guy. He would be the type of guy who you would be talking to and he would look you straight in the eye and hold a conversation, but he would always have a guitar in his hand and be doing scales up and down the neck and doing the most insane stuff on the guitar. But he would be looking at you and holding a conversation the whole time.
Mike Tramp – I met Mike way before White Lion had even broke. He was going out with a clothing designer I knew at the time who was probably the biggest most influential clothing designer back then and she introduced me to him one day at a show at Irvine Meadows. I looked at him and thought, damn good looking kid! But it wasn’t till about 2 or 3 years later White Lion broke in the USA and broke really big. Tramp and I became really good friends and we would hang when he was in town and eat dinner and go and eat at a high end sushi joint. Mike and I have spent a lot of time together over the years.
Last year you released a book titled “Fuck You: Rock N Roll Portraits, which certainly had an interesting concept. Can you tell us about that one?
Well that book is one of my favourites. Slash even told me the other week “that book is the favourite book around my house, everybody picks up that book and loves it and then go out and buy it”. The beauty of the book is that it starts off in 1975 with Steven Tyler on stage flipping me the finger in front of about 10,000 people. Then there are shots like Joan Jett giving me the finger in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and then there is Van Halen with one shot of them on the set for the Hot For Teacher! Then there’s Tommy Lee, he features quite a bit and there’s Slash and then even The Bulletpigs in Japan in front of a Japanese McDonalds. Some pics are live, some are backstage, some in the studio. Some are in the Caribbean with Nikki Sixx and Robin Crosby. So there’s a little of everything…. it’s a really cute book, it’s cheap as it’s only $10 right now on Amazon and would make a great XMAS gift hint hint!
Out of the thousands if not millions of photos you’ve taken, if you had to be defined by one image or photo shoot you’ve taken, could you pick your all time favourite?
Well my favourite shoot would have to be the Motley Crüe blood session. Not the band shoot, but the part with Nikki after the rest of the band had left. It was just me and Nikki and we went and bought a bottle of Jack Daniels, I called up my drug dealer and got a whole bunch of blow and we got sick and crazy. So that was probably my favourite photo shoot. I also have a colour photo of Mick Jagger that is on my website that I really love a lot too that I shot in 1992. I think it’s probably one of the best shots of Mick Jagger ever! So they are the two that really stick out in my mind that I love a lot.
Latest Book Release: Six String Heroes – 2009 & Motley Crue – A Visual History 83-85