Axes & Anchors co-owner Ann Squire gives you the lowdown on the February cruise sailing to Key West and Nassau with Breaking Benjamin headlining a lineup filled with guitar gods like Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen and Michael Schenker.
Sometimes you really do get to turn your passion into a profession. Sisters Ann Squire and Deb Wilson have combined their love for live music with their fondness for ocean cruises. The result is the debut Axes & Anchors,a Feb. 20-24 voyage departing Miami aboard the Carnival Victory featuring a lineup that also includes Motionless In White, Flyleaf, Thousand Foot Krutch, Marty Friedman, Alex Skolnick, Tony MacAlpine, Demon Hunter, Adelitas Way, Tracii Guns, Rudy Sarzo, Gilby Clarke and others. Expected to be officially announced is Act Of Defiance, the superstar metal band featuring former Megadeth members Chris Broderick and Shawn Drover, Shadows Fall guitarist Matt Bachand and former Scar The Martyr frontman Henry Derek.
Not only will the voyage mark the first time the guitar-centric cruise sets sail, it will also be the first ship of music headed up by Axes & Anchors LLC co-owners Squire and Wilson along with their not-quite-on-paper partner Jon Thompson.
Featuring 40 concerts and 25 workshops, Axes & Anchors is for people who love guitars and the people who play them. Billed as “The 1st ever guitar dominated cruise,” Axes & Anchors promises everything “from sight-reading to shredding, jazz to metal, and everything in between!” the outing includes 30 audio, lighting and stage technicians who will handle five semi trucks-worth of backline, audio, staging, lighting and LED walls as well as more than 1,000 pieces of equipment.
How does Axes & Anchors differ from other music cruises?
I think we’re more focused on the musicians. Particularly, as the name implies, on guitar players and the guitar as an instrument. We’re also focused on workshops [and] education. It was really important to us to bring people together who could share their appreciation for guitar-oriented music, have fun and learn at the same time.
When you and your partners first started brainstorming, did you imagine the event and then figure out what it would take to make it possible?
It definitely started from wanting to bring together musicians, particularly guitarists, into one place. … There were already business models out there that were … kind of teaching where you could learn from celebrity counselors and play with them as part of the band. We wanted to do something that was a little bit more diverse where we could bring together [guitarists] who could teach and perform, festival-style.
We were trying to think of the best avenue to bring those types of things together. That’s when we came up with the idea for a cruise. We had seen the other cruises that were doing different genres of music and we wanted to do one that was more education based.
Did you look at some of the artist camps or the Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp as a model?
We looked at them [after deciding] that a cruise was the best way to bring everyone together, and keep them together. And provide venues for people to take workshops where we could keep it pretty organized, everyone would have their cabins right there. We looked at the Rock ’n’ Roll Fantasy Camp brand, and I spoke with some [of their representatives]. It wasn’t what we wanted to do, and we certainly felt they were doing it pretty well, so we didn’t want to reinvent that wheel. Maybe it was an inspiration … but we knew we wanted to do it differently by not necessarily having people participate as a member of a band. In our case, you don’t have to play an instrument to come on and enjoy the shows and workshops.
But you’re expecting a lot of passengers to bring their guitars.
Yeah. A lot of them are but what we’re finding is [that] the people that are booking are mostly whole families. Looking at our lineup, there are two very distinct tracks. We have the legendary guitar gods. Then we have the younger bands, what you would hear on [Sirius XM] Octane.
What we’re hearing from the parents is that this is the first time in years that their kids want to go on vacation with them. The parents are interested in Zakk and Yngwie, Michael Schenker and those guys. Their teenagers want to see Breaking Benjamin, Motionless In White, Thousand Foot Krutch and all of those. This has really been bringing the generations together. … We really enjoy seeing it.
And we have a lot of parents bringing teenagers who are child prodigies. They’re telling us, “My kid trains under these famous people,” that they’re so good at guitar and they can’t wait to meet all these people and take workshops [from them]. They’re bringing the whole family. So we get a pretty good variety that way. We like it.
"MMRBQ," Susquehanna Bank Center, Camden, N.J.
May 16, 2015
Between you and the other two principles in Axes & Anchors LLC – who is the biggest guitar fan?
Jon is. He doesn’t play guitar but he’s a huge shredding … metal fan. He’s the one that has the huge, huge interest in music. He’s practically a walking encyclopedia.
Was he the one who had the idea to make this a guitar-centric cruise?
It was actually a friend of ours who plays guitar. He plays in a band and we asked him what he thought of the idea. And he said, “What if you made it based on guitar?” He really convinced us. The original idea was to get guitar players from a whole variety of genres. In the course of securing talent, we actually looked for Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and various others, and they were already doing cruises in their own genres of music.
So we were like, “OK. We’re going to have to start with where we are.” We already knew people in the hard rock/metal genre and reached out to them first. [Then] we tried to shake it up a bit in some smaller ways. For instance, Alex Skolnick is doing a metal set and a jazz set. His two sets will be split. We brought Gabriel Ayala on because he does jazz and flamenco as well as a little bit of shredding. Tony MacAlpine is known for his fusion [and] we diversified it from there.
When you were just beginning to plan Axes & Anchors, were you already aware of the number of music cruises available?
We were already aware. We were [actually] on a [six-hour] road trip, ourselves, to see Queensrÿche. There isn’t rock music in Sedona, Ariz., where we’re based. At first we were saying, “It would be nice if, instead of having to travel to all these shows, we could bring shows to us or bring shows together in one place.” And that was where we started.
Axes & Anchors is on the Carnival cruise line. Did Carnival give you any suggestions for the project?
They were tremendous. When we first started pitching, we were accepted by three different cruise lines. Choosing who to go with was difficult at first but once we chose Carnival we were so glad. They have been phenomenally supportive from day one. We went on our site-inspection cruise and we took nine people onboard the Victory for one of their cruises. We spent the whole time working and meeting with their staff, from the time we woke up to the time we crashed in bed. Their cruise director had a lot of suggestions for the games. For instance, we’re doing a four-day scavenger hunt [to win] a signed guitar. They gave us a lot of great ideas for things to use, ideas for the scavenger hunt and how to run it. Ideas for heavy-metal bingo and ways to make variations on their existing setup that we could twist for our purposes.
If this was a land-based project, you would need to abide by local sound volume limits, curfews and other concerns. Are there any limits on an ocean cruise?
We chartered the whole ship. They’ve not put any restrictions on us regarding sound levels or noise. Certainly, they want to make sure their ship is respected. They don’t want to see it trashed. They did ask about the bands we were bringing on board when they were considering our proposal. … But beyond that they haven’t said another word about it.
They never told us that we couldn’t have a certain band. But, from what I hear, they weighed each one.
Were you and your partners a little nervous when you first put Axes & Anchors on sale?
Oh, my goodness, yes. We had started building a little bit of buzz online by saying, “Something’s coming. Something big is happening.” Then we … leaked the name “Axes & Anchors” so they probably started gathering ideas from that. About 24 hours prior [to the onsale], we started really trying to build up a fervor thing – “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” Then, when we went on sale, we were so excited because we got bookings the very first day. We were nervous, we weren’t sure what to expect. But as soon as the first booking came in, it was a huge sigh of relief. Then the phones kept ringing and we felt so blessed at the moment.
How close are you to a sell-out?
We’re not allowed to say by contract, but I can say we’re very, very happy.
But you are still accepting bookings.
Oh, yeah. … We’re on quite an upswing right now. … We’re very excited about that. You go through a period where when you make an announcement, you get a bump in your sales, then it drops off. You make another announcement, it bumps up and then drops back off. You kind of go like that while making announcements. We’re finally at the point where the totality of our lineup is sinking in and now we’re getting bookings based on that. Now [the bookings] are more steady.
Who was the first act booked for the cruise?
Were you able to use Malmsteen’s name to attract other artists?
Absolutely. The first thing everybody asks you, when you reach out to an artist or their management, is “Who else do you have?” Then, when you don’t have anybody else, they ask you, “Who did you have last year?” We didn’t have an answer for that, either. Yngwie was the first one really willing to take a chance on us, and we’re so grateful to him for that. We really kind of owe him. Once we had Yngwie, everybody else sort of sat up and took notice. He’s been so terrific to work with. He’s really excited about this, he’s been promoting it a lot. … We’re also working on possibilities on bringing his new art onboard as well, a few samples of that.
Did the artists you were reaching out to suggest other artists for the cruise?
We had a few people do that after they booked and we had to weigh each artist on their own merits. For instance, Johnny Monaco was suggested by Tracii Guns. We took a look at Johnny, his experience and teaching style and thought it was really fun and quirky and we liked it.
What is production like? Are most of the acts sharing the house sound system?
Our house system is pretty high end. Breaking Benjamin brings their own [gear], but most will be sharing the house system. … You gotta have Marshall Stacks for Yngwie. For the most part we’re just honoring the riders as much as possible. There are some things you can’t bring onboard. The cruise line won’t let us bring dry ice, for instance. We can’t have fog machines. There are some little accommodation changes that need to be made. Some of them have bigger festival stages that they are used to, and we have to make some slight modifications. But, for the most part, they don’t have to give up gear.
What can your passengers expect upon arriving in Miami? Is there a pre-voyage party?
We’re working in conjunction with [Yngwie’s wife] April Malmsteen on a pre-cruise party. We’re pretty excited about that. … It’s going to be a lot of fun for our passengers. The thing that makes Carnival different is when you get onboard, the minute you walk through the door, the party starts now.
Some of the other cruise ships, they’re very elegant with beautiful chandeliers and all the marble and all that. Carnival ships are top-notch, too, but it’s a very different atmosphere the minute you walk on board. It’s more like a club. The party has already started. There’s a bar right there, and there’s a DJ right there. The music is thumping. … It’s on.
What do you have planned for the first day?
We have a sail-away party because no cruise would be complete without one. We have a couple of surprises planned for that. We also have the whole terminal to ourselves so we’re looking at ways of making things fun inside the terminal while they’re waiting to get onboard. It’s Terminal D in Miami. It’s the newest one and it’s just gorgeous.
Will the bands have a section of the ship that’s off limits to fans so they can have some personal space?
There will be an artists’ lounge but that’s right out in the middle of things. To get in or out of the artists’ lounge they’ll have to go through the common areas. In the artists’ lounge – [where] the platinum VIPs access happy hour every day from 5-7, there will be security to make sure none of the artists are being hounded.
Around the boat we’re using what we call “social buffers.” We’re also adding an extra layer of people who are highly trained in customer service. They’ll wander around and make sure the artists won’t be badgered too much. [The artists] are there to meet with their fans. We specifically chose our bands because we knew they would be very fan-friendly. So the social buffers are around to help gracefully extricate them from any uncomfortable situations. But otherwise they really do want to see their fans. Breaking Benjamin has expressed that to me several times about how they’re looking forward to seeing their fans at this level and getting a chance to get to know them. Most of our artists are bringing their families and are looking forward to getting out and doing normal cruise things.
What about ports of call?
We’re not doing so much of the usual things, the private [island] performances and stuff. Being our first time out it, was just a little more to bite off than we felt comfortable with. We felt if we couldn’t do it really well, we probably should wait to do it.
We do have unique permission in Key West to stay past sunset. Apparently it’s very hard for a cruise ship to get permission to stay in Mallory Square past sunset. So our passengers will be able to enjoy the sunset festivities that go on in Mallory Square and Key West.
And you have all the amenities cruise ships offer – bars, restaurants, pools, a gym.
We’re covering one of the pools and two of the Jacuzzis with the pool deck stage. There will still be three pools and, I think, four Jacuzzis left. Their fitness center was just newly done this past March. It’s pretty high end, pretty cool looking. And, I think, 15 bars … full casino. Some of the artists will be doing poker tournaments with the fans and hosting casino tables.
Beale Street Music Festival, Tom Lee Park, Memphis, Tenn.
May 3, 2013
What are some of the other artist-interaction activities?
Beer pong. One of our artists wants to play ping pong with the fans. The poker tournament, we have quite a number of artists wanting to do that. Josh Balz from Motionless In White has already said to count him in. Trevor from Adelita’s Way is also playing. One of the celebrities will host rock ’n’ roll trivia. One of them will do the calling for heavy metal bingo. We might have several for that. … They might take turns.
They’re also involved in the scavenger hunt because the items passengers will be looking for are not all tangible items. … Some of the questions might be [about] finding out a certain fact about a band that’s not publically known. Things like that.
Have you already begun working on next year’s Axes & Anchors?
Yeah. At least as far as thoughts go and laying some groundwork with Carnival for it. We’re already looking at who might be in our lineup next year and what we would do differently or do the same. We would probably roll out the bands differently next year. We will probably roll out our headliner first. We didn’t do that this time.
Do you see this as an annual event or might this happen more than once a year?
We see this particular cruise happening only once a year. We also see adding additional cruises that are not the same. … Each one would have a different take. We don’t want to dilute our own brand by competing with ourselves.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world about Axes & nchors but you haven’t had the opportunity?
We have a running joke, internally, because we’re breaking a lot of barriers. My sister said, “My God. We’re two women and an Indian throwing a cruise. We’re really thinking outside the box.” It really stuck with me because JT is Native Navajo. Nobody has asked what it’s like to be minorities in this business. The answer is it makes it more challenging. There are still a lot of aspects that involve the boys club and it’s tougher for my sister and I to, sometimes, get what we want or to be taken seriously. But, we’ve surrounded ourselves with tons of people who are in this industry and have the connections so that it hasn’t been huge [struggle] for us but we definitely feel it. We feel it much more so in this industry than in the corporate world.
Talking with several of the women I know who are in executive positions in this industry … one of them told me, “I wound up having to hire a male to do that job because nobody would take my calls, nobody would listen to me, nobody would take me seriously.” You can’t necessarily convince some of the old-school to see things your way. When we were in the corporate world it was, maybe, a little more structured, people had to deal with us. In the music industry they don’t necessarily have to.
But it looks like, for a first cruise, you have achieved most of your goals.
Yes. We really did. I’m surprised and amazed that we did. We’re so grateful. It started with Yngwie. We’re grateful to the guidance that we’ve had. We have some friends inside the industry [who] provided tremendous guidance for us. And we were able to surround ourselves with people who are well-seasoned in the industry and continue to give us guidance on a daily basis.
Of everybody on your lineup, who are you dying to see?
Alex Skolnick. I have such a respect for him, for his diversity and his passion. … He’s such an easygoing, laid-back guy. … The talent to do a metal show and then turn around and do a jazz show. Isn’t that incredible?
House Of Blues, Anaheim, Calif.
January 21, 2015
Please visit AxesAndAnchors.com for more information.