I don’t really remember who introduced me to Metal Church and their debut album, but I was truly amazed. This was a mysterious suggestive form of metal that I hadn’t heard before, especially the first side of the album was absolutely outstanding. “Beyond the Black” and the title track “Metal Church” were the ones that impressed me most, even though “Gods of Wrath” and the instrumental “Merciless Onslaught” were just as good. I have followed the band through all their lineups ever since. The band was and is led by band founder Kurdt Vanderhoof and has featured three different singers and has broken up twice before the most recent reformation in 2012.
The first two albums featured the late great Dave Wayne whom also returned for their sixth album “Masterpeace” in 1999. Ronny Munro who stayed on for four albums and one breakup before he quit in 2014 in turn replaced him. Ronny was a pretty good singer but perhaps not as impressive as his predecessors, but the music on the albums he did with the band are great. Then we have Mike Howe who replaced original singer Dave Wayne after the bands second album “The Dark”. Howe recorded three albums “Blessing in Disguise”, “The Human Factor” and “Hanging in the Balance” between 1989 and 1993 before the first breakup and finally returned to most fans delight in 2015 after Munroe’s departure in 2014.
The first offering by the new line up which also apart from Howe and guitarist, bandleader and chief songwriter Kurdt Vanderhoof also featured bassist Steve Unger who has been in the band since 2004, former Savatage drummer Jeff Plate who joined in 2006 and finally guitarist Rick Van Zandt was added in 2008. This lineup released the album “XI” in 2016, an album that proved that Metal Church was back and in great form and the album received great reviews. It was also the first Metal Church album since “Blessing in Disguise” in 1989 to enter the Billboard top 200 chart. “XI” reached number 57, which is the band’s highest chart position so far.
Successful tours and festival gigs followed and in 2017 Metal Church released their third official live album and their first featuring Mike Howe, titled “Classic Live”. Unfortunately Jeff Plate had to leave the band the same year but former W.A.S.P. drummer Stet Howland soon replaced him.
And here we are in 2018, with the release of Metal Church’s new and twelfth album, “Damned if you do”. An album that, if you ask me, is an improvement in every way over its great predecessor “XI”. Recently I got an opportunity to talk to Kurdt Vanderhoof over the phone and he told me amongst other things about the new album as well as how the music business has changed for better and worse since the band was first formed way back in 1980
Stefan: Tell us about the title ”Damned if you do” for the new Metal Church album?
Kurdt: The cover actually has to do with the era that we are living in currently with all the deception that’s going on politically and socially that you have to be extremely careful about who and what you listen to and believe. So the cover is an aspect of it, it’s not a bash on the catholic church or anything like that. It basically says that you have to be careful of who you listen to, and just because you’re sitting in a church it doesn’t mean that you necessarily are hearing the truth. The devil is at work in the church as well and his biggest lie is that he doesn’t exist. So that’s one aspect of it and then the title also reflects kind of some of the lyrical contents of the record that is somewhat, you know, current event oriented. The same thing replays to not necessarily with the church or spirituality or your faith but it has to do with in an era of fake news and all the deception that’s going on. You have to be extremely careful about who and what you believe. Just because it’s on the news doesn’t mean that it’s true. You really have to spend a lot of time searching out the truth and if you don’t your damned if you do, if you believe the lies. That’s what the cover is about and some of the lyrical contents of the album.
Stefan: Is that a statement from you or an observation?
Kurdt: It’s both actually. Definitely a statement from me, cause of the observation [Laghter] that’s why it’s a statement.
Stefan.I don’t know what your political views are but I watch quite a lot of American news. You have Fox News, CCN, MCNBC and so on…
Kurdt: I don’t watch any of it anymore, I tried and then I started researching stuff on my own and went… “OHHH, that was a lie, ohhh that was a lie, that was a lie… Ok, I get it… “ so [Laghter], I don’t watch any of it any more. If I pay any attention to the news anymore it’s from the alternate media.
Stefan: So you get your news from the alternate media, how do you know that they are speaking the truth?
Kurdt: Well. With a lot of the alternate media you have to do some research and they will give you links and things like that to do the research on your own. It’s not easy at all and it’s designed that way, so you have to spend the time researching and most people don’t have that kind of time, which is really unfortunate. I rarely do it anymore but after listening to the news and finding out that it’s global, it’s all over the world, they are controlling the narrative. It’s bad out there, it’s a lot of deception going on out there.
Stefan: We could talk forever on politics but maybe we should get into the music instead.
Kurdt: Yeah[Laghter] sometimes, anymore of that ruins relationships and friendships [Laghter]
Stefan: I think that there should be room for difference of opinions even among friends.
Kurdt: Of course, absolutely and a lot of people don’t do that anymore. I mean different viewpoints and different things like that, let’s having a good discussion and that’s fine rather than turning things to a violent, like you know, now you’re not my friend and violence and insults and all that kind of stuff, that’s complete BS.
Stefan: Anyway, about the music. How did you approach the music this time compared to the last album, “XI”?
Kurdt: Pretty much the same. The process for me is that I demo up all the songs musically and then Mike and I collaborate on vocal melodies and lyrics and things like that and the placements of the arrangements. Then I will send them to the rest of the guys and they have their input and they put their stamp on their parts and we kind of work from that. So it was pretty much the same this time. When I put together a record I don’t like to think about, I try to keep the process as organic as possible, so when I come up with something it’s literally about do I like it, do the rest of the guys like it, and leave it at that. Not trying to come up with something thinking, ok the Metal Church fans are going to like something like this. I want them to like it certainly but more often it’s more of just letting it flow getting into that kind of mindset to where it just kind of happens. And if we like it the chances are that the fans like it to.
Stefan: Well I certainly like it. [Laghter]
Kurdt: That’s great. You see, it works. [Laghter]
Stefan: I think that since Mike came back the music has changed a little bit compared to when Ronny Munroe was in the band. Was that a conscious decision or did it just happen?
Kurdt: Well. I don’t know if it was necessarily conscious. Again, I don’t want to think about it too much but there is one aspect of Mike coming back to the band that made me very happy. Looking back to the time when Mike came into the band the first time back in the eighties, the sound of the band went more hard rock melodic rather the thrashy stuff of David Wayne, which was fine , but when Mike came back to the band we could kind of get back to that direction which musically and creatively I prefer when it’s a little more song oriented, a little more melodic vocally and this kind of thing which got me a little more excited about it. I prefer that kind of stuff, I like good vocal melodies, I like good hooks and choruses and musicality even though it is heavy metal and needs to be aggressive, but for me to be interested and into it, it has to be musically as well.
Stefan: I agree with You, I think that the Mike Howe albums are the best ones you have done, all five of them, except for side one of the first album, which is amazing.
Kurdt: Great, terrific, thank you.
Stefan: So when you compose, I guess that you are not together with the full band in a rehearsal room or studio when you present what you have written? Instead you send the files to the members of the band.
Kurdt: Yes when I demo stuff it’s like that.
Stefan: But when you arrange the songs, how does that work?
Kurdt: Everybody have a chance, we talk and we communicate and do everything that way. “Hey, what about this part a couple of times and lets move this part”, or” I got this feel right here”, and then we interact even though we are not necessarily in the same room, because we kind of live all over the country like a lot of bands do these days. But we still interact to where it’s kind of the same. Everybody got a chance to put in their two cents and everybody if they got riffs they can send them and we can all work on those too.
Stefan: It seems like a time consuming way compared to meeting together in a rehearsal room and dishes it out.
Kurdt: Yeah, it is, but it’s a little more difficult to all being in the same place living all over the country and people have other lives and stuff. [Laghter]
Stefan: I guess that this means that you start with the music and then write the lyrics?
Kurdt: I do, yeah, that’s how I work. I’ve tried to work the other way, a lot of people will work around lyrics and vocal melodies first, but I’ve never been able to do that. For me the music inspires the subject, the music inspires the words.
Stefan: Yeah, and maybe the melodies as well?
Kurdt: Yes, exactly.
Stefan: When you record the album, are you then also in different places?
Kurdt: Only with the drums. We start with the drums at a studio, that’s the foundation. We make sure they got a good feel so I don’t have protool them to death and don’t have to edit everything. So that the feel can translate into the songs. That’s another thing I have problems with on a lot of modern records, the drums and everything is so edited and triggered that it’s so fake, there is no feel anymore and I just hate that. We try to get the drummer when he’s happy with his performance and then we listen to that and make sure there is a good feel, that it feels good and then we go on from there.
Stefan: And then you record the rest of the music at your studio or do they send files?
Kurdt: Yes, they all come to my studio where we record all other instruments and vocals as well as the final arrangements.
Stefan: Mike has now been back in the band for a couple of years. How did this affect the band Metal Church and the fans of the band?
Kurdt: It certainly gave the band a new injection of life. When Ronny left it was kind of , I don’t know if there is going to be another singer in Metal Chruch. It didn’t seem right. So the fact that I had been in contact with Mike, just as friends as we hadn’t spoken in a long time, a week or two prior to before Ronny leaving the band. It was kind of meant to be, I feel. So when Mike came back to the band it certainly gave us an injection of life, without a doubt, and I think a lot of the fans were excited about it because it became more and more legitimate Metal Church rather than a brand new band. It became Metal Church more so. The other aspect that was great for it was the fact that Mike and I could not only work in the studio together putting the music and the record together but then we got to perform live together. We did not do that back in the eighties.
Stefan: Yes, at that time you had left the band but still wrote the music.
Kurdt: Yeah, I had left the band, as I wanted to learn how to make records. I wanted to spend my time in the studio learning production and engineering and that kind of thing.
Stefan: What is the biggest difference between Metal Church today and when Mike was in the band the first time?
Kurdt: Other than the obvious things, the members, musically, the direction, I really want to keep the direction for what Metal Church is known for. The other difference would be just the way the business works now and that’s one of the reasons why Mike came back. We are now much more in control of what we do, where back in the old way of doing things, we were very much being controlled. You get paid last and you got eight million people with their hands in your money, you’re completely controlled. Whereas now it’s our own deal and we do what we want to do and if we don’t want to do it we don’t do it. And that’s a huge wonderful wonderful thing about the new music business.
Stefan: A lot of bands don’t make any money though with the new music business, they don’t sell any albums.
Kurdt: Well, you don’t have to sell literally as many records now to make the same amount of money as when you had to sell a whole bunch of records, because it’s not filtered, people don’t take that much percentage anymore. It really depends on your deal that you have if you’re working with a record company, if you’re getting an advance there is some money there. If you’re not getting an advance you’re keeping your expenses low. That’s the downside, but the upside is you can go out on the road and make some good money. The best thing about the new music business for me and a lot of us older guys [Laghter], I’d like to say veterans, is that you can continue to do this and have legitimate careers still. Where as in the old days the only money you get, unless you broke huge, would be the advances and that’s money that you owed. So you never really made any money, you loaned money. And even if you sold a whole bunch of records you never saw any money because you were so far in dept to the record company. So those kinds of things are not really happening. I think they’re still happening to a point but for the most part bands in our kind of scene operate a little bit differently. We use independent labels and keep things in control and you have a much better shot at making a little but of money.
Stefan: Touring cost a lot of money though, do you get tour support or something like that?
Kurdt: Oboy, it sure does. You got to get some pretty good gigs to be able to afford it, so it’s definitely that. If we have to get tour support to go on the road we don’t do it, you can’t do it. I won’t go in dept to do a gig. There is no point in that, I mean for us. A new band, a younger band, that’s a different thing, they have to establish themselves. Tour support, no, that’s not something I will do anymore. If we can’t get enough crowds and make enough money to play then we can’t do it.
Stefan: Does this mean that you always headline your shows these days?
Kurdt: Oh no, not at all. There are a lot of package deals and things like that going on. If you’re together with us and a couple of other bands that have a draw the promoters will pay and you split up the money accordingly. Then you make enough to afford to do it to pay for all your expenses and then hopefully you come back with a couple of dollars.
Stefan: And maybe make some money from merchandise?
Kurdt: Yes merchandise is important, certainly. And if the streaming companies would start to pay for what they are selling, that would be a huge help for us musicians because the streaming companies are completely ripping of the artists. It’s just horrible what they do. Hopefully it looks like things are changing soon. That’s what really needs to be changing to save us.
Stefan: But do the streaming companies really make any money themselves?
Kurdt: Oh, they make an awful lot of money because of the subscriptions and the amount of money they pay the artists is just penny’s on the penny. It’s insane; I don’t know how they got away with it. But there is legislation, at least here in America, that is starting to get that a little fairer. It’s not there yet, it’s just starting. Hopefully that will kick in.
Stefan: Otherwise, if you’re not a name band, you can’t afford to record an album even in your house. Isn’t it like that?
Kurdt: Yeah, you could record it if you have the money to buy the equipment, which is a fraction of what it used to cost. But then you have to manufacture it, how are you going to sell it? I don’t know, I feel bad for the young bands now. I wouldn’t know how the hell you would doo it. So the fact that we still have a fan base is pretty amazing. We are very very blessed.
Stefan: And not all bands have sound engineer in the band and then you have to pay for that, and the artwork and so on…
Kurdt: Yeah, right, exactly. That’s one of the reasons I stepped back in the eighties. I was seeing as we were working and the old business model, I was seeing all the people and how much they were getting paid before I got paid, and that was like “Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that I’m not making any money on this record but this guy that’s pushing buttons is getting 60.000 dollars? Are you kidding me? Wait a minute! No no, I’m gonna get in that, I’m gonna get here, I’m getting in that line”. [Laghter]
Stefan: What about touring, are you coming to Sweden and Europe?
Kurdt: Yes, this summer. We are setting up two trips to Europe to do the festivals this summer. I think we’re doing Sweden Rock this summer, I think we are, I’m not sure yet but it’s all being set up right now.
Stefan: Will you play songs from all the albums or just the Mike Howe albums?
Kurdt: We play songs from all of them but we do focus on the songs from the Mike Howe era, because Mike is, Mike Howe. [Laghter]
Stefan: Ok I guess that we have to stop now. Hopefully we can meet up at Sweden Rock this summer.
Kurdt: I hope that it will be confirmed, I hope we are doing that. I love that festival because it’s got all kinds of music at it and I really like that, a lot.
Stefan: I saw you there with Ronnie once. I was going to see you with Metallica in Gothenburg but you were snowed in somewhere in Europe so I missed it and was very disappointed. King Diamond came instead.
Kurdt: Oh yeah, the bus and everything froze up and broke down. We made it to the show but the show was cancelled because all the gear never made it there. [Laghter]
Stefan: Thank you very much Kurdt. I had tons of more questions but we’ll have to do it some other time. Good luck with the new album and the tours.
Kurdt: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure. Hopefully we’ll see you this summer.