Latest Release: Damned If You Do (Nuclear Blast)Website: www.metalchurchofficial.com
When the thrash metal movement started to really gain traction in the States, in the wake of other sub genres of metal that were already established, there was a surge of bands in the Bay Area of San Francisco and surrounds who wanted no part of the glam metal scene that was firmly entrenched in the Los Angeles area. Aberdeen, near Seattle, was one location where metal band Metal Church honed their art and they soon found themselves touring alongside the up and coming thrash titans of Metallica and every other band, notable or otherwise, that was around at that time. Sadly, an exponential career trajectory curve like that of a handful of their contemporaries wasn’t guaranteed and as such Metal Church became one of those bands who influenced everyone else in a variety of rock genres but never quite gained the international recognition that reflected their impact.
Still, founding member, rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter, Kurdt Vanderhoof soldiered on and then, after a couple of periods of dormancy, the band reconvened and been active for several years, receiving further critical acclaim for their most recent albums and performing again in relevant parts of the world. Australian metal fans can now rejoice because Metal Church are now making a breakneck debut visit to Australia. Loud Online was more than happy to chat to Vanderhoof about all things Metal Church to mark this long awaited tour coming to fruition.
Metal Church is finally touring Australia!
Finally, I know, can you believe it? So glad. It’s now become a do it yourself type of atmosphere in the business and I have been pushing for it in the last couple of years. We have never been there and I have always wanted to come to Australia.
The last two Metal Church albums XI and Damned If You Do were received really well with XI hitting #34 in the German charts.
We’re so happy with it and yeah, it’s great that we still get to do this in any capacity. Ha-ha.
Do you have to do much pre-production these days?
Not really a whole bunch but I mean, Mike [Howe – vocalist] and I have a writing programme that we sort of follow. I start demoing the musical ideas and then we’ll collaborate on the vocal melodies and the lyrics. We then kind of, rough them in and send them to everybody involved to let them put their stamp on it. Then we start the recording process. It is not really anything amazing or special in the process; we just get it to where we like it.
Is it fair to say that getting Mike back in the band was the key to there being resurgence for Metal Church?
For me, it was the key to keeping it going. When our previous singer [Ronny Munroe] left, I just could not get my head around the fact that there were four singers, thinking, there’s not four singers for Metal Church. I was ready to take this as a sign to stop and to go and do something else. But then it, we could have gone and gotten somebody but that just felt wrong. Mike and I had been in contact for other reasons and really, we were just catching up as friends and that was very close to the time when our other singer left. It was just kind of a cosmic thing thinking, ‘Wait, why am I in touch with Mike and now our singer left?’ and then I decided, ‘Okay, maybe this is supposed to be’ and then when he decided to come back, it was definitely the reason to keep going.
Going back to 1986, when Metal Church scored a major label deal [signed with Elektra], there were smaller, growing labels [Megaforce] that thought they were going to pick up Metal Church without having to compete so much. What happened at that time?
Oh well, we got offered a major label deal so we had to do it. Even though, as it turns out, our lawyer lied to us and we signed a really bad contract. But, you know, that is one of our Behind the Music-style horror stories. But it was the thing to do so we had to do it and I know that we had talked to a lot of labels.
I believe you sold somewhere around 72,000 copies of your first release, Metal Church, just before that in 1984.
Yeah we did, on our own label. That is why they starting paying attention.
If you were starting out now, a band probably couldn’t sell that much today.
Nope, even the bigger bands like Metallica now sell about two hundred thousand physical copies. You know, it is a whole different animal these days.
What are your memories of playing with Metallica? Back in the day, I read you played a New Year’s Eve show [at the San Francisco Civic Center] with them in 1985 in San Francisco.
Yeah, with Megadeth opening, as well as Exodus and Metallica. It was just a hell of a lot of fun. All of us, even though we had different bands and we were all in different bands, we were all kind of fighting for the same cause, so to speak. It was that we all felt, well, we were, all part of an actual movement or a community that was changing the face of music. We were really bringing something new and exciting so it was really amazing. It was a great time to be part of something and be in your twenties, thinking that you’re immortal, you know.
You’d also played with bands like Slayer, in Los Angeles, by that point. I imagine you were starting to see some pretty aggressive crowds.
Yep, oh boy. Oh yeah, playing with Slayer, ha, it wasn’t really our crowd then but we seemed to get through. All of the Slayer fans were moshing in front and spitting on us because we weren’t heavy enough for them. But all of our fans were around the rim of the arena. So, it was kind of an interesting mix.
Nice. When Metallica introduced then new bassist Jason, they opened for you to announce it. It was billed as Metal Church with a surprise appearance by Metallica at the Country Club in Reseda, California.
Yeah, they were just breaking Jason in and they were doing unannounced shows and we were all good friends so we said, ‘Yeah, sure’ but that was a little bit tough when people realise that it was Metallica opening and then we came on. It wasn’t that people didn’t like us but Metallica was a tough act to follow because Metallica at that point, could do no wrong. They were the poster child for everything that we were doing and they were great guys and they still are. Anyway, that was there way of doing things like breaking Jason in, was to do unannounced shows and kind of come in under the radar. It was kind of like, ‘wow’ and we had a lot of fun playing some little clubs and there were some crazy nights there for a few of those shows.
The link with Metallica and Metal Church continued even when you stepped out of the band and John Marshall [ex guitarist and Kirk Hammett’s early guitar tech] once filled in on guitar for an injured James Hetfield. Plenty of things like that.
Right, exactly and I’ve known Lars forever and all of that stuff.
Looking over your discography at this point, is there one particular album that is your proudest work?
Wow, well, the most popular one, obviously is the first one [Metal Church] and I think there is something about that one. A lot of artists feel that way when they do their first record. It is as people say in that you have your whole life to write the first album and then maybe six months to write your second one. But, I think that there is a vibe and an energy on the first album that we never recaptured because of the way that we did it and that is because we didn’t know any better. We just went in and recorded and basically played the whole thing live. We did it within a week and that energy was captured. Boy, I really don’t know because for those reasons it would have to be the first record but I really, really dig our last record [Damned If You Do] as far as the sound and the vibe of it goes, definitely.
Decades have passed from the crunching metal guitar sound of thrash in the eighties. Have you changed your guitar rig and the amplifiers used these days given how much technology in the guitar community has changed equipment set ups?
Well, a little bit because now, for live Metal Church, I use Mesa Boogie amplifiers but for my other stuff [Vanderhoof and Presto Ballet], I use old school Marshalls and Orange amplifiers because I don’t use a lot of gain for that stuff. For Metal Church, I do use a lot of gain. As far as recording is concerned, I do a lot of writing on the computer but the most part, I still record in my studio using analogue gear. I still use tape as much as possible. Guitars are always Les Pauls.
The funny thing about thrash in the 80s is that initially, the amplifiers that were around weren’t really configured to get that heavily distorted sound that some bands managed to get somehow through experimenting with gear.
Well right and I think that for a lot of it too, stuff wasn’t that high gain then. One of the problems that I have with the modern amplifiers is that there is so much gain and you don’t really need any technique. One of my complaints about a lot of modern albums, especially in the metal genre, is that they all sound the same. Everybody has an amplifier tone that sounds the same with super high gain. That kind of gets a little bit boring after a while but I think that is one of the reasons there was a little bit more of an identity in records back then because you had to find your amp. Every amp sound a little bit different and you had to spend some time dialling in your tone and those kinds of things. Now, it is all just there, right in an amp, you know, because gear now is so good that most of it is good.
You produced and co-engineered [with Johnny Hyatt] the last album so I’d guess you go out of your way to make sure it is not heavily gated or compressed.
Oh, I try, I definitely try, I mean, that is why I like to use tape. Not only do I like the sound of it a little more but the fact is, it is harder to cheat. I don’t know if anybody really cares but it is just something that I do for me. When we track the drums, it is tracked all the way through; it is not ProTools and beat detected to death. It has got to have a bit of a push and pull to it to have a bit of a feel to the drumming. It is those kind of things that I do because I like leaving the hair on it, I like leaving a few rough edges; I don’t want it to be perfect. It is rock’n’roll, it is not supposed to be perfect. Again, that is another complaint for a lot of the modern records; everything just sounds so fake. The drums are so perfect and they sound perfect so I just think, ‘well, use a fucking drum machine’ and everybody’s guitar sound is so perfect, gated and tight and perfectly on the grid. You know, it’s all yuck; listening to that sort of stuff gives me a back ache.
Indeed. You’ve got a great metal gallop going on some songs on the latest album; ‘Revolution Underway’, ‘Guillotine’, ‘Into the Fold’ and on the last track of ‘The War Electric’. Do you spend a lot of time on getting those guitar rhythms down?
Well, I am a rhythm guitar player. I don’t do leads very much and when I do, they are pretty much boring, ha-ha, so I like to do the melodic stuff. That is just my thing so I am a rhythm guitarist. I really work a lot on the riff and making sure that the riff is memorable and has a good feel to it. So I like the sort of gallop, the stuff that makes your foot tap or the stuff that makes your head bang. I think a lot of it is down to just those things being what I do so I don’t really think a lot about it. It is not really a conscious thing. I do a little bit of doubling with one track on the left and one on the right for the rhythm tracks and just to give it that stereo image. That is about it though. I don’t stack guitar sounds on top of each other. That just gets messy.
The last song on the album, ‘The War Electric’, has a bit of a solo trade off. Is there any involvement from you on the solos?
Maybe that one is myself and Rick [Van Zandt – lead guitarist], I cannot remember. I haven’t listened to that one in a while. I’ve only been concentrating on the songs that we’re playing live, right now.
Fair enough. How much rehearsal goes into your touring given you’ve got such a massive back catalogue?
Well, we try to decide beforehand which songs we want to learn and what we want to play for the set. So, we have our standard tracks that we have to play. But, when we have a new album, we want to concentrate on playing some new stuff. Everybody just kind of does their homework and since we don’t really have a huge production or headline arenas so we don’t have to rehearse the show so it is nothing like that. We just get together and get the segue ways and stuff going but really, we just get together and play. That is, again, a real meat and potatoes approach to it. Once we’re getting a new tour together, like we did for this album, with the tour of America, we rehearsed for about a week. Because everybody did their homework, when we came together, when we worked out the arrangement of the set and the segue ways, then that was pretty much about it. So, right now, since we all live in different areas of the country, it’s a case of, ‘Okay, we’ll meet you in Prague’ and we’ll start touring.
You do have the occasional guest musician on your albums. For instance, you had Todd La Torre fromQueensrÿche on ‘Fake Healer’ fairly recently.
Oh he is great, yeah, and it turns out that he was a Metal Church fan when he was growing up too. So, being able to work with him was great. That really was a lot of fun.
Being that you’re also from the Seattle area initially, did Queensrÿche have any influence on Metal Church in any capacity?
I don’t know, not necessarily. We are big fans though and I know that all of us in Metal Church were big fans of Queensrÿche. I think that they were a little more on the progressive side of things, even at the time but I certainly love that band. Love them so in that respect they would be an influence.
You mentioned playing smaller tour shows but you’ve also played some large festivals. Given your legacy, what is it like playing Wacken?
I come back to the fact that at our age, we still get to do this. The very fact that we can go over to Europe and play festivals in front of thousands of people, still, today, that is not lost on me, man. I am incredibly grateful and it is definitely a blessing, for sure. I believe that God is good and I do not take that for granted. Even the fact that we get to come there and then go to Japan plus to finally get to come to Australia; at this point in our career we are experiencing new things that are exciting. That is pretty awesome, man. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Agreed and we are starting to see bands that never toured here for decades suddenly appearing. When you look back at the shred guitar era, thrash metal was pretty much running alongside and there was crossover. Did any of the intense musicianship appeal to you at the time?
Yes and no. I respected it but I never desired to incorporate myself into that realm. Listening to the shred guitar players…I had never been a big lead guitar player guy, I was always interested in the riff. That is why Rick does the majority of the solos; he was always interested in the solos and the lead guitar playing. I have never really been interested in that but the musicianship factor is very interesting since I am a very big progressive rock fan. However, we’re talking about mostly the early seventies era of prog rock stuff, so there is a little bit of a disconnection with it for me because as far as prog metal is concerned, I don’t want to hear a million notes all at one time. I like to hear the melodies but at the same time, I do like my early prog rock.
It is interesting because there was certainly some crossover with guitarists that had incredible musicianship from guitarists such as Marty Friedman and Alex Skolnick.
Yeah, exactly but I have to say that kind of stuff was and is a little over my head. Ha-ha.
The Megacruise in October sounds intriguing as that one is Dave Mustaine’s thing.
The Megacruise, yeah, it is awesome and Megadeth are the headliners who are putting it on. It is going to have a lot of us and not exactly old guys as a lot of us are veterans, ha-ha. But hey, we’re going to be hanging out on a boat together which will be great because we’re old friends. We used to tour with Anthrax all the time and we just got back from touring with Armored Saint. We did a tour with Megadeth. So it is all of our friends. Alex Skolnick and I are friends from Trans-Siberian Orchestra so it is going to be a whole heck of a lot of fun.
Sounds great. Given you’re also a producer, when doing Metal Church albums, are there challenges with being objective in that role since you’re playing on it?
Yeah, it is a tough one being objective when you’re doing your own thing. It is really tough but hopefully it works. Apparently it is working to a point, I guess. But, you know, it really just takes a lot of practice and really being able to put the right filter on to determine whether you really like hearing it or whether you just like playing it. The most important thing at that point is how it sounds, not if you like playing it. Lyrics are also important because the message is very important to me, if there is one. I try to keep it positive and keep it on the upside of things. That is one of the things that Metal Church does – we don’t mess with the Satanic stuff and I am a Christian so I try to keep things along those lines. There are certain boundaries that I have that I will not cross with what I am saying and with what I am putting out there. But, Mike and I collaborate on that so there are different things that we don’t touch that Metal Church are not about and never has been so we don’t do that. It is important to me that the right ideas, the right imagery and the right message gets across.
I understand what you’re saying there. You’d clearly be aware there are numerous bands that use the Satanic imagery and see it as a joke since it is stock metal imagery.
Ha-ha, yeah right, I do not believe that it is joke. It might be a joke to them but it is not really funny if you’re putting that out there and then people are getting into Satanism. To think that as a joke is not too funny.
I agree. Early Slayer was essentially black metal, lyrically.
Yeah exactly and they put that stuff out there too. It is just not my bag. Gary [Holt] is a good friend of mine and all of that stuff. We obviously know Slayer and have done forever. They are really super nice guys but in that case, I do not buy what they are selling.
By contrast, there is overtly Christian metal ranging from say Barren Cross and Whitecross to Tourniquet, Deliverance, Vengeance Rising and Mortification. Some great musicians in there but similarly, the lyrics can be seen as confrontational.
Yeah, for me I kind of run into trouble with the Christian rock or Christian metal scene only in the sense that the lyrics are kind of all the same. I mean, I understand why and that is fine but to me, some of the music just lacks a little bit of creativity, whereby it is all just pretty much all praise and worship. Hey, I’m all for that but when it comes down to being stimulating artistically and creatively, I think that there could be more in it. That is just for me personally where I run into a little trouble. There are exceptions though but for me it is like, hey, ‘Why does the Devil have to have all the good bands?’
There’s a Larry Norman lyric within that comment. A band like Stryper wouldn’t call themselves Christian music which is somewhat justifiable.
Yeah but I think that all of this has more to do with what is behind your music. The question is what is behind your music and what are you putting out there? For someone like me, who is a man of faith, if you want to call it that, there are certain things that I just don’t want to sing or say and I can’t do that either because I wouldn’t mean it so I don’t want to put that out there. Once you realise that it is real, then you want to be a bit more careful as a musician.
The irony being that your band name is Metal Church so you’ve copped a bit of grief from the side you support.
I know, right. Ha-ha, it is kind of like, well, if that wasn’t prophetic then I don’t know. I mean, we’re not a Christian band because not everybody in the band identifies themselves with being Christian. I am but I am not speaking for the whole band. But that is why we are a band that doesn’t get into the dark stuff, no pun intended.
The band name came from your apartment nickname, back in the day.
Yeah, yeah, when I was living in San Francisco, we used to call it The Metal Church. People would just say, ‘Let’s go and party at The Metal Church’ and then people just starting calling the band that. It was a bit like, ‘Okay’, ha-ha.