Nancy Wilson has been sitting on “The Dragon” for quite a while — as far back as the ’90s, when she wrote the song for Heart. Although it didn’t come to fruition until her new band Roadcase Royale set about recording its debut, its resonance has only increased over the years. “The Dragon” — which will be on Roadcase Royale’s First Things First and is premiering exclusively below — started life as Wilson’s open letter to the late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley while he was in the throes of addiction. And in the wake of this year’s suicides by Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, the message behind the album’s heaviest track is even stronger.
“(Staley) was still around when I wrote it, but everybody saw it coming, that he was on his way down the chute. I mean, he was really in big trouble. He was completely destroying himself,” Wilson tells Billboard. “So I saw it coming. It was a cautionary tale — ‘Don’t go there, Layne! Stop!’ But now there are other people it can also be about, and it’s always going to apply to anything that pulls people down into the addiction dungeon.”
With their own Bad Animals recording studio in Seattle, Wilson and her sister and Heartmate Ann had a front row seat for the hard drug component that dogged the city’s burgeoning gunge scene during the ’80s and ’90s. “It was so rampant,” Wilson recalls. “I saw a T-shirt; It said ‘I came to Seattle to score heroin and all I got was a record deal.’ We got to meet all of the Seattle explosion guys and we all became pretty close. We could’ve lost more of them. Since those days a lot of those guys have managed to bounce back and be clean and be proactive and productive, but they still came close.”
“The Dragon” itself, meanwhile, gained new life after Wilson brought it into consideration for Roadcase Royale, which she formed last year with members of Heart (including Dan Rothchild, who produced First Things First) along with Liv Warfield from Prince’s New Power Generation band and her guitarist Ryan Waters. “I said, ‘I have this song. It just needs finishing,'” Wilson recalls. “It’s a big rocker even though it starts very mellow, and everything about it is the Seattle ethic. So Dan helped me finish it; He found a cool little bridge part, and the rest is Roadcase Royale history. I guess it feels right for this band, and there’s a reason it was never supposed to be for Heart in the first place.”
First Things First comes out Sept. 22, and in addition to band originals it includes new renderings of the Heart favorites “Even It Up” and “These Dreams,” which Wilson says were done for pragmatic reasons related to Roadcase Royale’s current tour opening for Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. “The Bob Seger tour was offered up to Heart initially, but Ann said no so I said, ‘Well, what about Roadcase Royale?'” Wilson explains. After some back and forth it was decided the group could go out but would be billed as ‘Nancy Wilson of Heart with Roadcase Royale,’ with a set that would include some Heart songs. “I thought that was a fair trade, not a problem,” Wilson says. “I don’t mind leaning a little bit on Heart just to get our feet wet and get a foothold going for this new band. That’s the only thing I want to do more than anything else, and I’ll work my ass off to get this thing going.”
Roadcase Royale will be out with Seger into November, and Wilson is hoping that “they’ll fall in love with us” and perhaps ask her band along for anticipated 2018 dates. Wilson and company are looking at other opportunities as well. Heart remains fractured after Ann Wilson’s husband Dean Wetter was arrested for assaulting Nancy’s 16-year-old twin sons backstage at a Heart show in suburban Seattle. Ann Wilson is currently touring as a solo act.
“I don’t really seem to have much dialogue with my sister any more — she doesn’t write, she doesn’t call…and that’s fine with me,” Nancy says. “If down the line we kind of restore our relationships a little bit and put a little work into that, that’s one thing. But for right now (Roadcase Royale) is what I’m doing. I’m ready to just do this new thing now and not look back.”