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Ronnie Mancuso (Beggars and Thieves) - Firefest 2010 Post-Show Interview

Ronnie Mancuso – Firefest 2010 Post-Show Interview, 31 October 2010

(Interview by Brent Rusche)

In the stairwell of the Welbeck hotel bar stands myself and Ronnie Mancuso, founding member and guitarist of Beggars & Thieves, about to embark on a completely impromptu interview. A band whose origins are firmly rooted in the heyday of the New York City hard rock/heavy metal scene in the late 1980’s, they quickly found themselves signed to Atlantic Records and released their classic, eponymously titled debut in 1989. A move to Epic records for their follow up recording proved devastating, as their new label made the decision to shelve the album and drop the band from its roster due to the mighty gravitational pull of the burgeoning Grunge movement (a tale spoken by legions of bands from this genre). However, a renaissance is upon us with melodic rock gaining momentum each year. With festivals such as Firefest, Sweden Rock and Bang Your Head, many of the bands who defined the genre are reuniting and making comebacks and Beggars & Thieves is no exception. On the heels of a rousing performance at Firefest 2010, Ronnie was more than forthcoming about the band’s history (both good and bad) and plans for Beggars & Thieves in 2011.

BR: …and the impromptu has started. Ronnie, it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you.

RM: It’s a pleasure to meet you.

BR: I will be the first to say I was not aware of Beggars & Thieves as a young adolescent when the self-titled record was released.

RM: You were probably too young.

BR: Not really. I was into the whole scene, but there was just so much going on at that time where bands were just getting signed “left and right.” Badlands, Warrant, Cinderella…you had all these bands coming out and then, all of a sudden… Beggars & Thieves hit. Michael Barbiero…Atlantic…you’re talking about big, big people and story goes that the band was signed after only six gigs. Tell me about the genesis of the band; how you hooked up with Phil Soussan who was already a big, established bass player with Ozzy and how did it happen so quickly?

RM: Well, Louie and I were originally in a band with Dana Strum [Vinnie Vincent Invasion, Slaughter] in Los Angeles in the early 80’s. We were really close to a record deal as there was a lot of interest in the band. We were a bit ahead of the curve and at that point, the band started working for Pasha Records (Spencer Proffer) who at the time put out Vanilla Fudge, Danny Spanos and Beach Boys and all these records. We were so close to getting signed to a lot of labels…Tom Werman who was a big producer at the time, Ken Scott [engineer]…all these people were interested in the band and it unfortunately, it all just sort of fell apart. Myself, Dana and the drummer went to work for Pasha Records and we recorded the Danny Spanos album. I also did the Vanilla Fudge record with Carmine Appice and Jeff Beck. It was my first record when I was 21 years old which was an amazing experience. To go backwards a little bit, when I first moved to Los Angeles, the first version of that band, which was called Modern Design, was with Marcie Free. Marcie and at that time, his wife, moved on and Louie replaced Marcie in the band and he brought Dana Strum because they were in a band called Bad Axe together. So we were part of that whole scene and that whole situation and then it fell apart. Then in the late 80’s, I ended up going to New York where Louie was at the time and had established himself as a big session singer. He was working on a lot of commercials, worked for Desmond Child who at the time had all the big hits with Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and all that. Louie was my favorite singer and the person I always wanted to work with, so in 1989 I moved to New York and we put together a band very quickly. We recorded three songs with Desmond Child and Bobby Chouinard who was the drummer for Billy Squier and many other things…wonderful drummer and Hugh McDonald who plays with Bon Jovi now. So we recorded that demo and with that, all of a sudden there was much interest. We played six gigs and had three record deal offers and it ended up, because of Ahmet Ertegun who was such a legendary guy in our experience from Led Zeppelin and that history, signing with Atlantic and Q-Prime [management company] who at the time had Metallica, Def Leppard, Tesla, Dokken and now have Muse and who are still the biggest management company in the world…just everything happened so quickly for us. We were listening through records and I loved the way ‘Appetite For Destruction’ sounded and I really liked Soundgarden’s ‘Louder Than Love’ and that is why we picked Michael Barbiero to produce our first record. It came together very quickly because of all the years we spent before putting it together, our reputation and obviously with [our association with] Desmond Child who had the number 1 record at the time with Bon Jovi all helped make it come together very quickly…

BR: Wow, it sounds so very incestuous…

RM: That’s the exact word, incredibly incestuous. You know, Dana brought Randy [Rhoads] into Ozzy’s band and then Dana played with us…after Randy passed under horribly unfortunate circumstances, Ozzy called Dana and they together, auditioned guitar players of which George Lynch originally won the gig. Then something didn’t work out there and Jake E. Lee got the gig…so it was very incestuous, that entire group of people. I find it amazing that we’re still friends 20 years later. So when we did get signed to Atlantic we decided we wanted a young rhythm section because we had used Hughy [Hugh McDonald] on the demos, who wasn’t officially in Bon Jovi at the time but was already working with them and Bobby, who was doing session work with Alice Cooper and Cher and everyone else. So we auditioned young players and Phil Soussan and Bobby Borg were the guys that we picked to make the first record on Atlantic. So it is a very long, complicated story…but interesting.

BR: Yeah, it most certainly is! I had no idea. And it’s funny because you talk about Jake E. Lee and he was summarily dismissed from Ozzy and ultimately started Badlands. That was right around the time B&T were signed to Atlantic as well…was there any connection with that through Dana or…

RM: We both ended up on Atlantic and Jake and I are still really good friends and we hang out a lot in Las Vegas because he lives there now…so it’s a small world. In fact, we played a week ago with Lynch Mob in Vegas and I told George [Lynch] that Jake was in town and George asked if I could get Jake down here…I called him immediately and I got him down and we all hung out all night and that was the first time George has seen Jake in 20 years…so it was a wonderful night…and this was only like 10 days ago that this happened. It’s amazing how everything comes around and we’re still all out there doing our things…

BR: Yeah, things come full circle and it’s nice to see everybody getting along and putting aside the egos…

RM: I think we are older and smarter and we are in it for different reasons now…it’s better. It’s a really interesting time and so many musicians have ended up in Las Vegas from Ron Keel to Brent Muscat from Faster Pussycat to Jake E. Lee to Paul Shortino…I could go on and on and on…Vince Neil, obviously Dana Strum…so a lot of us have ended up in Las Vegas and it is really interesting that we all have come together as a community to a certain extent, get along and spend time with each other. It makes for a really cool, interesting time.

BR: With all of the excitement surrounding the first record, then all of a sudden you guys ultimately never got to release the follow up. Due mostly to the industry changing with regards to the style of music (i.e. the Grunge movement) but also with Beggars & Thieves moving from Atlantic to Epic Records and them deciding to shelve the record. That must have been a huge disappointment…

RM: Yeah, it was horrible. We finished the first record and it started to get a lot of traction. Steve Clark from Def Leppard died right in the middle of what was going on with us. Q Prime [Management] was obviously distracted with that going on and different things and we lost our momentum. They thought we could do better at Epic and Bob Pfeiffer signed us. We moved over to Epic, went to Vancouver and once again, spent a ton of money and did the “Look, We Create” record with Jim Valance which is, I think, one of our best records and that was a great, exciting time. We had a lot of fun doing that...but after that point, that’s right when Nirvana and all of that happened…and all of a sudden, we were no longer relevant anymore. And it was incredibly disappointing because…what more could we do? We had the biggest managers, the biggest labels, the biggest lawyers…we had labels spending millions of dollars and all of a sudden, because of the culture, it was suddenly all irrelevant and that was a very, very difficult time us.

BR: What do you feel that Beggars & Thieves didn’t get with support from the record label that made other bands as the aforementioned Badlands get more press, because as I said earlier, being an adolescent at the time, I was the teenager watching ‘Headbanger’s Ball’ with Adam Curry, Riki Rachtman and that was my weekly sermon. I remember seeing videos for ‘Dreams In The Dark’ and Winger’s ‘Madalaine’ but never remember seeing Beggars & Thieves on that broadcast

RM: We got played one time on that show. We released [the debut] around Christmastime which was Cliff Burnstein’s idea who had been successful in the past with that. He is an incredibly, brilliant manager. Peter and Cliff are still at the top of their game…their integrity is unbelievable…they are amazing people and amazing managers still, to this day with Muse and Metallica and so on and so forth. We were up to 100 stations and there was a lot of momentum, but at the time, that was the nature of the business. They signed a lot of product and “threw it out there…” and we almost stuck. We were almost there but it was simply a timing issue. Obviously, the record has legs because people have responded to it 20 years later, but it was very difficult circumstances…and there were millions of bands mired in the same circumstances. At that time, record labels would sign 20 bands and maybe one…if they were lucky would “stick.” So at that point, as I said, we moved over to Epic Records to get a better opportunity and by the time we finished that record, Grunge had happened and it became a very difficult situation, especially for Louie. I was born realistic…I said, “What more could we do, there is nothing more that we can do.” So we retreated back into the studio world and were lucky to be able to make a living doing a lot of television music: FOX Sports Network, NASCAR and Louie did a lot of jingles. As disappointed as we were, we were able to continue making a living in the music business. That is just the nature of this business…there is a lot of great talent that doesn’t experience huge success…all of the stars have to align to make everything work, especially in the old days. It’s a different world now because you can carve out your own, individual niche market. But back then, you needed the support of the whole industry to make the whole thing happen. Beggars & Thieves were so close…it was terribly disappointing and for a long time, it was painful for us and that’s really the theme of the new album which is titled ‘We Are The Broken Hearted.’ Ultimately, if you’re creative, Louie and I realized, why stop when we were just getting “there” just because of the culture, or whatever. It took us a long time to realize that, but the point of it is that I’m just getting good. We’re writing better songs than we ever have, Louie is singing better than he ever has and I’m playing better than I ever have, so why stop now? There are so many other art forms that people may never prosper or come into their own until an older age, so why, just because of the culture should we stop…and that is the reason that we came back together. Love, compassion, friendship and creativity is why we’re back…and we’re having a great time.

BR: Absolutely. It is proof that the legacy of Beggars & Thieves is confirmed because of your invitation to Firefest 2010. How did that invitation materialize? Was it simply a “cold call” from Kieran Dargan?

RM: With the Internet, obviously things started changing. A few years back, we were contacted by a couple of people; Andrew McNeice from and an independent record label in Sicily and all of sudden, we realized that there was still interest and respect for the band which surprised us. At the time, I had a studio and was still recording and started to write again and felt like I had something to say. We were offered an opportunity to come to Firefest two years ago (FFV) to play the opening party [held downstairs from Rock City at The Rig]. It was just Louie and I because we didn’t have a band put together at the time…it was just once again all fresh. So we said, “Why not, why not go and have a little fun?” And when we came here, we realized that people knew, understood and loved the music and we were very surprised. They knew all the lyrics, they were singing along to all of the songs and there was so much passion and love for our first record. Actually, all of the records but the first one in particular, and it really re-energized us to realize that people all across the world were affected by our music and loved it and cared about it and that excited us. So we returned [to The States] and we started making the new album, ‘We Are The Broken Hearted.’ I have a recording studio that I originally started with Dana Strum and we’re very, very lucky to have hooked up with Kevin Churko who produced the last two Ozzy albums as well as Five Finger Death Punch. He has three songs in the Top 5 in America right now and became a good friend of ours. He’s actually putting his recording studio next door to mine and we are combining them together which is really exciting…

BR: So he’s moving down from Canada to Las Vegas?

RM: He’s been in Las Vegas for a while now and has really helped us. I brought in Thommy Price [Drums] and Enzo [Penizzotto, Bass] who played with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, to play on the album. Thommy is a great New York drummer whose played with Billy Idol, Scandal and many different bands. He is one of my all-time favorite drummers. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts happened to be coming through Vegas and one night, we jammed with them and I said, “This is one of the most magical rhythm sections that I’ve ever played with.” So I was able to bring them out and with Kevin’s help, start the record. We spent the last year and a half working on the album. We spent a lot of time and energy on this record and have been very meticulous with every aspect. It was a chance to really prove how good we really could be. There were no time limitations and no label involved. We could do exactly what we wanted and since I owned a studio, we could spend the amount of time we wanted. Kevin is mixed the record in between his Ozzy commitments of which has the new ‘Scream’ record out and is doing really, really well, as well as Hinder and Five Finger Death Punch who is on their third single. So he has been really busy and in between finished mixing the record and we are very excited about it.

BR: Excellent. So when is it going to be released?

RM: In the first part of the year [2011]. We’re looking at what our options are right now and we have a lot of interesting options with labels…which I can’t mention, but there are some surprising things. We are continually surprised that there has been so much interest in the [new] record and now we are weighing our options. In the meantime, we released the ‘Stone Alone EP’ which is three songs from those sessions…

BR: …of which I attempted to purchase, only to find them sold out!

RM: We tried hard and I thought we brought enough product but I was pleasantly surprised that people were so interested that we sold out. Although we’re really excited about that, I wish we would have brought more quantity.

BR: Well, one of the things that I love about you guys is that the music is not overly predictable as some of the other melodic rock bands and it has this really easy-going vibe. It’s not so much, verse-chorus-verse and then the big guitar solo…it just has this very relaxed vibe. Louie has this loose swagger about him onstage and it was really a different flavor that added to the palate that is Firefest. That was a real pleasure to see. To me, you guys were one of my favorites this year and one of the most unexpected surprises this year. All I can say is that being in The States, as both of us are, and the scene with which we are both associated with is nonexistent for the most part. You’ve got Kivel Records…John Kivel is a good guy, is doing a lot and has a lot of great bands on his label, but that is pretty much becoming the primary, independent label for this style of music in The States.

BR: So what do you have planned? Once the new record is released…you said you couldn’t talk about the labels and the interest that you have right now…but what do you see yourself doing? Are you planning a formal tour because of the interest that you have garnered from places like the UK and Europe? Are you going to be concentrating on that market or do you also have plans to do stuff in America?

RM: It is such a different time in music now with the Internet and the whole approach to everything…will there even be physical product in a few years is up for discussion but is reality. Certainly, in Europe the crowds are a different thing. They are very much into the music, they understand it more, they are more appreciative of it so we would like to focus on that market, certainly. Also, South America and Asia also have a lot of appreciation for the music. In regards to America, it’s interesting because of the people who are involved…we’ll have to see, who knows, it’s a different culture. Who knows what can happen with the record. It’s very cinematic and I’m expecting, because of what I’ve done in the past, to place a lot of songs in television, movie soundtracks and commercials over in The States. Who knows what will happen in America in the next couple of years because I sort of feel that it is at the end of one era right now…this American Idol, pre-fabricated, electro-dance music scene. There has always been an appreciation for really great bands and really great songs and hopefully there will be a place for us. I know, because the record is so cinematic, that we will be able to get songs into movie soundtracks and we have already gotten some interest with that…but as far as playing live, what we would really like to do is go back to Europe. First of all, I’ve already travelled America many times and I love it and there is nothing wrong with it but we have no great desire to play the Indian casinos in Wisconsin. But yet, to go to another country…to go to Sweden, Greece, Spain or Brazil…all of these places that we have been getting interest from is really exciting and wonderful for us. So I would like to do everything we can do to promote the record in Europe and all across the world and then we’ll see what the future has in store for us. In the meantime, the band is going to continue on…this is a serious venture. The band [members] we chose only play with Beggars & Thieves. So many musicians these days are mercenaries playing on millions of different projects. We are very focused, very committed and we are really enjoying ourselves because this is what we really love to do. It may have taken us a long time to get back to it, but this is for real. We are not doing this to release a couple of old songs that happened to be laying around or to relive some past glory, as minimal as it might have been. This is about being creative and making wonderful music. And like I said, I think Louie and I feel that as artists, we’re better than we’ve ever been, so why should we stop just because culture says we’re not hip or cool anymore? I don’t care about that. We’re just getting good, so why should we stop now? Let’s just keep going and see how great we can be.

BR: It’s awesome to hear your positivity. With all of the good that surrounded you when you first got signed to the negative stuff that you’ve endured…change in the music scene, the label dropping the band and shelving the record…what is the greatest thing, and the worst thing that you have experienced or you remember about the thing which we love and hate called the music industry?

RM: The greatest thing were the accolades. Sitting with Ahmet Ertegun and Cliff Burnstein telling me your lyrics are better than R.E.M…or Jim Valance saying that you and Louie are every bit as good as Steven Tyler and Joe Perry as far as being creative and songwriting. To be respected by the pinnacle of the industry was obviously the best experience for me. It was never about the glory, it was always about the music. So, to have someone like Ahmet Ertegun say…I think you are a “new, Classic Rock band”…that’s how I would like to classify yourselves. I hate to classify anything, but if you had to, I would say that we were a “new, Classic Rock band…I don’t see you like these other rock bands, you are are very special to me and I really love what you do…and for Cliff to say the lyrics to this song mean more than the hip, cool bands. Those were the highlights of the whole thing. The most difficult thing was to realize that at one point, it was over for us. I mean, ‘We Are The Broken Hearted’ is what this album is…to have your soul and your love and your passion and everything disappear. One day you have labels spending millions and millions of dollars and then you have Peter Minch say to you that “it’s over.” It was very, very difficult for Louie. It was easier for me in many ways because I was able to make a living…well, he was to, but it was just difficult to realize with Nirvana at that time, the culture shift was such that it was OVER. Nowadays, people find what they like and that is what is interesting with this new world that we live in. It’s actually a smaller world than a bigger world. Everyone finds their own community and they can hook up around the whole world because of the Internet, Facebook and all of the other social networks and they can come together as a group and create a community. At that time, if you liked Nirvana you had to hide your Bon Jovi records and wear flannel. Jani Lane [Warrant] always tells this story where he came in [to the Columbia Records office] and the ‘Cherry Pie’ posters were everywhere and they were the biggest band and everything and then he comes in the next time and it was Alice In Chains…it was OVER. It destroyed a lot of people. Some people didn’t even make it like Robin Crosby from Ratt. Many were not even able to survive [playing music]. There were a lot of casualties from that era because you had a lot of people making millions of dollars, were huge and successful who woke up one day and were completely irrelevant. That was very, very difficult to deal with and was really hard when you had all of these accolades and all of these people in the industry that loved you and were literally spending millions of dollars on your creativity and then all of a sudden it was over…that was a tough thing to deal with. But we focused on family and love and the things we felt were important and now we’re back, having fun and loving life.

BR: Again it is great to hear your positivity. Now I give you the floor to talk to the fans, the readers of Fireworks and visitors of the website…what would you like to say to them now?

RM: Thank you so much for supporting this music and supporting the things that you love. The bands and the artists appreciate what you bring to it and that is why we’re here. That’s why Beggars & Thieves is back…it came from the fans contacting us and telling us that what we did meant something to them and that is priceless. We don’t need to worry about the rest of the world. We have our community of people that love the music and that care about the music. We want to make great music for the people that support what we’re doing. It is a good time.

BR: For the record, I will say that it was an absolute pleasure meeting and speaking with you and your wife, Tina as well as witnessing your performance at Firefest 2010. I hope that this is the start of a friendship between us being that we are not only one of the few persons in the scene from The States but with a connection with the East Coast as well. I wish you the absolute best and if there is one last random question to ask before this whole thing ends, what venues did you play in the New York area when you were trying to get signed?

RM: China Club…

BR: …L’amour? [Brooklyn, NYC]

RM: Actually, we never played L’amour believe it or not. The first club we played, Louie might know the name of it, was right next to Electric Ladyland. That is where they have a Battle of the Bands and is where we got signed. Then we played The Ritz, Palladium, Cat Club and all the “rock” venues that were there at the time.

BR: Awesome. Things have definitely changed in the New York City and all of those places you mentioned are now defunct.

RM: The Cat Club...I saw Skid Row there the night they got signed. I was to L’amour many times but we never played there. The Rock and Roll Church at The Limelight on Sundays was always the big one.

BR: Only if the walls could talk at that place!

RM: I remember hanging out with Slash and so many different people. Rock and Roll Sundays at The Limelight was, at the time, definitely the place [to be]. Mondays you could go to Spodie Odie’s and I jammed with Vince Neil there when he was on the ‘Dr. Feelgood’ tour. Wednesdays was the Cat Club, Thursdays was China Club and then the weekends, you stayed home because all the cool people in New York don’t go out on the weekends…that was for the “bridge and tunnel” people. [laughs] Then Sunday you would start over again with The Limelight. It was a great scene at the time. There were a lot of bands coming out and that is where I reconnected with Jake [E. Lee] because Badlands was spending a lot of time in New York back then. And because of the Phil Soussan connection, we would get together and jam. So it was a really exciting time. There really was quite a scene happening and New York was a really great place to be at that time…still is. I love that city. How can you not love New York?

BR: It has a special vibe to it. Ronnie, it was such a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time and agreeing to do this impromptu interview. You have a true fan in me after all these years. Although I missed you guys the first time around back in ’89…

RM: …the second round is going to be even better.

BR: I certainly hope so. I wish you, Louie and the band all the best and let’s keep in touch.

RM: It was my pleasure, thank you.


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