Heaven the Axe has been off the road for most of 2016. That’s an unusual situation for the husband and wife team at the core of the Melbourne band, but one necessitated by the need for new membership. It was a call heeded from the other side of the world, in the shape of guitarist Alex Hellenbach, who sold everything he owned to fly out and link up with the band.
“It’s challenging to find people who are that talented,” begins singer Phoebe Pinnock, “because they’re not easy songs to play – and also that dedicated, which is why when Alex said he’d move from Croatia to be in the band we just thought, ‘He’s mental. He’s gotta be the one.'”
Rebuilding the band has been a process Pinnock describes as ‘heartbreaking’, a difficult period that has both tested and strengthened their resolve and their faith in the band and each other. It has pushed back their writing plans and stopped them from touring for eight months, but the couple are now prepared to endure it. Heaven the Axe is their passion, and it was hard to come to terms with the idea that it might not be every one else’s.
“You can really doubt yourself. There was a period where Steve and I would think, ‘If the music is good enough, people would stay’. But we realised that we were wrong. It wasn’t the music itself. There was a lot of real world situations. It takes a lot of faith in your music to forge it ahead. You go through periods of doubting what you’re writing and what you’re doing.”
The new line-up should help to further assauge any doubt. Heaven the Axe – Pinnock and husband, rhythm guitarist Steve Watts plus drummer Adam Savino, bass player Ben Gilmore and lead guitarist Hellenbach – have been locked away getting ready to hit the road again. They’re hitting it hard too, on an extensive tour with NT band Southeast Desert Metal that takes in both legs of the Brewtality Festival.
“Getting them up to live level is the first priority,” the singer says of the group, “and then hit the road so they’re really gig fit, so they should be nice and juicy to be able to record shortly after the tour.”
New blood also gives Pinnock and Watts more people to bounce song ideas off; Hellenbach in particular has been keen to step forward with a few of his own. Phoebe is grateful for the extra input.
“Alex being a lead guitarist, he’s really keen to contribute,” she explains. “He’s contributed to structures and solos and things like that. So there’s ideas coming in that we haven’t had before, because in the past, Steve and I pretty much wrote everything and then jammed with friends and people who were external to the band as well to get more ideas. It wasn’t always the way that everyone contributed to the songs. That’s what we’ve got now, another head, and that’s what you need when you writing music. A few heads to contribute to the ideas, because you can write verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then go What the fuck! when it comes to the bridge!”
Hellenbach has taken an enormous leap of faith to move halfway around the world to join a totally independent, underground band working a scene that isn’t known for mainstream acceptance. In Australia, everything depends on the support of the fans, of which Heaven the Axe has many – and they appreciate every one of them.
“It’s not an easy thing being in an Australian band. It’s very hard work to tour and the crowds aren’t huge and you’ve gotta be really, really dedicated to it,” Pinnock says. “It’s just so wonderful to have fans that come along. All the people that come to our shows, we consider a friend and we love to meet them. Often I’ve been at a show and I’ve thought, ‘Hardly anyone’s going to come to this show,’ and then all of a sudden the room’s packed and you spend the night taking photos and meeting people you’ve never heard from before in your life.”
Brewtality will bring Heaven the Axe back to Sydney for the first time in quite a while. Phoebe is a big fan of the event, which is making its inaugural appearance in Sydney this year. In Melbourne, it’s a show that helps bring the scene together.
“It’s going to be great to get back there and play on such a special show. Because Sydney doesn’t realise it yet, but the Melbourne Brewtality is just the most wonderful metal community night. Everyone comes along and has such a wonderful time and to be able to do that in Sydney and come along for the ride is just wonderful.”
While heavily catering to the metal audience, Brewtality bills itself as a ‘Celebration of Metal, Rock and Beer’ and as a band with an affinity with all three of those things, Heaven the Axe will slot in very nicely. Their music has managed to transcend boundaries, something that initially came as a surprise to Phoebe Pinnock.
“We definitely thought we were a rock band,” she admits. “We came out swingin’ as a rock band because Steve had been in Manticore that were death metal, and far more brutal than Heaven the Axe, so we never, ever considered Heaven the Axe to be a metal band. But going out there and playing on a lot of different line-ups, it was definitely the metal fans and promoters and events that totally took us on.”
In the beginning, when she and Steve were writing songs on acoustic guitars, she wasn’t even sure if Heaven the Axe was supposed to be a rock band. Steve and legendary everywhere-man drummer Matt Skitz soon sorted out that dilemma.
“When the band first started and we moved down from Wagga and started jamming on a few songs with Skitz, I looked at them and said, ‘You know, maybe we’re meant to be a roots band’ because we’d been translating these acoustic songs,” the singer recalls with a ringing laugh. “They just laughed and said, ‘Well, you’ve got the wrong guys in the room!'”
Heaven the Axe seems to have the right guys in the room now. Touring is underway and another recording is finally looming. Phoebe and Steve have been through the gloom together, and things are looking positive again. It’s full steam ahead once more.
“With those line-up challenges, you either choose to move ahead, or give up,” the singer declares. “Giving up is not an option, so we’ve done the hard work instead.”
4/8: Karova Lounge, Ballarat VIC
6/8: Brewtality Festival, Melbourne VIC
7/8: Musicman Megastore, Bendigo VIC
11/8: Rad Bar, Wollongong NSW
12/8: The Basement, Canberra ACT
13/8: Brewtality Festival, Sydney NSW
14/8: Small Ballroom, Newcastle NSW