Metal Church – Gratitude in DamnationSunday, 30th December 2018
History has a way of reigniting interest for heavy metal. There’s a reason why legacy acts like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica generate enough fervor to sell out arenas and stadiums globally based on their back catalog, which sells steadily as second and third generations of metal followers discover their music. Metal Church is another act from the 1980’s enjoying a healthy buzz because of the return of Mike Howe for the XI studio album and subsequent touring that proved the band’s ability to deliver melodic power/thrash has never diminished. But could the band strike lightning again on the follow-up effort, Damned If You Do?
To these ears, they’ve stepped up their penchant for catchy riffs and solid melodic hooks throughout this ten-track effort. There are nods to the past with “The Black Things”, a more straightforward, Accept-like stomp to “Monkey Finger”, as well as just killer heads down riffing for “Guillotine” that will make for massive neck twisting action for the consumers. Proving that they can compose, create, and execute metal for 2018 that doesn’t besmirch their back catalog of classics, we reached out to vocalist Mike Howe. His laid-back nature and genuine appreciation for this ‘second chance’ in Metal Church made this conversation a true pleasure – as you’ll learn about the songwriting process between Kurdt and Mike, the change in drummers, the differences between his voice in the past and today – and why the band will never charge their fans for meet and greet at the shows.
Dead Rhetoric: Damned If You Do is the twelfth Metal Church studio album, and your fifth with the group. How did these recording and songwriting sessions go, and how would you compare this effort to your previous records with the group?
Mike Howe: For my era of Metal Church, the five albums you just mentioned, Kurdt Vanderhoof and myself have a certain chemistry, and we’ve written exactly the same way that we do. Which is Kurdt getting into his studio and coming up with the structure of the songs, presenting them to me after he writes a half dozen or so – gives me some to listen to as he keeps writing. We get together in his studio, he throws up a microphone, asks me which song I want to start on and we work on whatever comes out of me. I work off of feel, I start singing out melodies and sometimes words come out as we go- sometimes words are silly and we just keep them for the melody of the song and move on. We don’t beat it to death, we know if we are on to something and if it doesn’t work out, we move on.
I’m not a nostalgia guy, I don’t like looking back at the other (albums). I’m very proud of them, to me they are like my children, I love them all differently and they are different time stamps of life. Also being so close to them because we wrote them and we lived them, it’s hard to have perspective on how I see ‘them’ different. It’s more like a continuation of the albums, and we are evolving in the way we get along and the way that we see ourselves. I think it’s the next record in the history of Metal Church, and I’m very proud of this one. Especially because it’s a powerful recording, everyone involved was really passionate in their playing. Kurdt mixed and brought it out where you can hear everyone’s passion and aggressiveness and all of that really shines through. To me it got me really excited, and that’s what I can say about Damned If You Do.
Dead Rhetoric: Whose idea was it to develop the first metal ‘hum’ for the title track? It definitely sets the mood of the record straight away?
Howe: That was me. I do yoga and I was talking to Kurdt about an idea of doing some sort of chanting and incorporating that, as an experiment. This song just popped out to me as something that might work with that, and set the microphone up in my face, hummed it out and we got lucky and we liked how it sounded, so we kept it.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you see any major differences in Stet Howland as a drummer for Metal Church than your previous drummer Jeff Plate?
Howe: Oh yeah. I think that every player, whether they are a guitar player, a drummer, a bassist, or singer- they all have their own individual stamp and style of playing, and that’s what makes playing music great and sound different. I welcome that with open arms – let’s see what this new guy sounds like and can contribute to the sound of Metal Church. Jeff Plate is a great drummer, we are thankful for his time in the band, but he needed to move on and that’s fine. Here’s Stet- he’s adding his style and we really like it.
Dead Rhetoric: What inspires and fuels the lyrical content for Metal Church these days?
Howe: I think it’s like it always was. We think about life in general, politics, personal lives and personal matters that affect us. We don’t try to point fingers at an exact thing. Metal I like to say is rock and roll angst but on eleven, because it’s more aggressive. The root of it is just expressing your emotions and angers in life and getting them out in a healthy way. An art form such as metal, each listener can use the lyrics and incorporate them and interpret them for their lives and what it means to them, and that’s what I like about it.
Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the video shoot for “By the Numbers” – it seemed like a fun mix of storyline and performance footage? Did you enjoy the acting sequences?
Howe: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. It’s a lot of fun to be in your fifties and jump up and down, get to play. It was fun back in my twenties, and I’m a lucky guy to get to do it again. We are on a little bit of a tighter budget now, but I think the director Jamie Brown did a great job with the video. He did “Needle and Suture” and the “Reset” videos for us from the last album, he’s a really easy guy to work with. I talked to him about the idea of living by the numbers, so we came up with ideas of how I’d be the guy who’s the rich guy. I went to a thrift store and got a suit, it was fun. We came up with these ideas overnight and shot the videos over a couple of days – we got together in Los Angeles and shot that video and the title track video all in one weekend. We had fun doing it.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you see the video medium being as important in the social media age as it was for those 80’s and 90’s years when Headbangers Ball was a staple on MTV?
Howe: I’m told it is, I don’t really know because I’m not in the business of understanding that. It’s a promotional tool that gets out there, and I think the fans really enjoy seeing the band. We like to show a little bit of humor, and that we aren’t super serious- I think that’s a healthy thing. I enjoy it, we all enjoy it, and so it’s a kick in the pants.
Dead Rhetoric: When you went on the road to support the last record XI, did you have any apprehensions about the level of acceptance you would receive, considering how long you had been away from the metal scene and touring in general? Did the feelings differ from the first time your joined the group for Blessing in Disguise?
Howe: I don’t think the word apprehension is a word that I’ve felt. I didn’t know what to expect- I went in with no expectations and hoping for the best. What happened was an incredible reception of the fans and it was overwhelming. It was more like a little spiritual reawakening for me. It’s a great journey to get out on the road and meet all these fans old and new, reconnect and the love that they share over the music, it was just unexplainable. I’m grateful for that time on the road and I look forward to more of it. It’s just a very special thing to be able to create music and then go out and have people enjoy what you do and share the experience of that music.
The feelings differed greatly because we are older now and hopefully a little wiser. We can appreciate more of life and what we have, having appreciation in your life just allows you to enjoy the experience way much more. Being grateful for all those things makes it even more of a special connection with the fans and all that. It’s a beautiful thing.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that your voice and range have changed now that you are in your fifties compared to your younger years? Are there different things you have to be aware of and do to take care of it and keep things in shape?
Howe: My voice may be a little lower, but that’s natural I think when you get older. You lose a little bit of the high. Part of the growing process in getting older, I do yoga- and it’s really helped me to stay centered and calm. I can control my mechanism, my breathing a lot more and easier than when I was younger. I used to get excited when I was younger and the adrenaline would take over sometimes, when that happens that can be death for a singer because you lose your diaphragm and your singing technique. If you let anxiety or stress invade in on you, you lose your breath support and you start singing out of your throat and that’s when you can damage yourself. Nowadays, I have more control over that, I sing stronger for longer. Eating healthy, sleeping, just taking care of yourself is what you do. So hopefully you can do a better job of that when you are older than when you were younger (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe the relationships and music/business outlook for Metal Church at this point in your career?
Howe: A very good question. I don’t know – I try to live just in the moment for the foreseeable future. I don’t try to look too far ahead because I want to enjoy where I’m at now. Just taking it album by album, tour by tour. You have to have a certain plan of course, not too far in advance.
Dead Rhetoric: Are there any specific highlights in your music career that will stay forever in the memory banks?
Howe: Yes- the one primary example I use when asked that question is in 1991. I went on tour with Judas Priest, Metal Church did – the Operation Rock and Roll tour. I made it back to my hometown of Detroit, Michigan and my whole family came down to the show. Growing up my mother was a big fan of me of course, she inspired me to sing and egged me on all the time. She was my muse I would say. She knew that Rob (Halford) was one of my inspirations, the biggest inspiration for singing when I was young. I used to be in a cover band that did Judas Priest material.
She came to the show knowing full well that Rob was somebody important to me. She asked me before the show if she could get a picture of herself taken with Rob. I told her of course, Mom- when we get off stage we will go back to the meet and greet tent and he’s usually there. We came into the tent, and my family is sitting at a table in one corner of the tent, and Rob’s in another corner talking to the press. I walk over to him and say, ‘excuse me Rob- would it be alright if my mom gets a picture with you, she’s really excited to meet you?’ And he says to me in his British accent, ‘well, your mom is like me mom- she’s already been over here and got her picture taken with me.’ (laughs). It was just a very sweet moment. And there in the room was my mom, blushing like a little girl like she got her hand caught in the cookie jar. Now I have this very sweet moment, my mom and Rob Halford together, on my refrigerator.
Dead Rhetoric: That’s awesome that you’ve always had the support of your family- do you still have that to this day?
Howe: Oh yes, of course. I’m a very lucky man.
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve made it a point to be available to your fans for meet and greets without requiring extra payment to do this – and received praise as such. Can you discuss your reasons and philosophy behind this decision?
Howe: We are just old school. Back in the day there wasn’t any kind of… why would you have to pay to meet the band? The band’s out here, shake hands and say hi. I’m showing my gratitude, and the band is showing their gratitude to our fans for keeping us alive this thirty some years later- that it’s the least that we can do. We are a band on the road, we are killing time for most of the day. Our job is playing music, and what do you do after the show? I have plenty of time after the show before we get on the bus and go to the next city. Why wouldn’t I want to go out and meet and thank all the fans as I can. I stay out there as long as they want me to – I’m the lucky one. I’m the one that is lucky to meet them.
I understand that other bands have the model that pay to meet them because of the difficulties of the music business to make money nowadays. They are trying many different marketing strategies to keep themselves alive. I don’t hold it against any other band that wants to do that, but it’s difficult for me to swallow that.
Dead Rhetoric: How difficult is it to decide what goes in the setlist, now with five Mike Howe-Metal Church albums plus some of the David Wayne classics people want to hear?
Howe: It is a very, very good problem to have. (laughs). And a difficult one, yes. It’s very exciting though. With Kurdt, when we came back with XI, he said to me, whatever songs I want to do, we’ll do them. It was my return, I picked them, and we did them. The first two years of touring. This time around – it’s pretty much the same, but it’s going to be tough as we have new music to play. We love playing new music, and we are going to play at least three songs off the new album. It’s always a difficult thing to do, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you see the next year or two shaping up for Metal Church in terms of activities? Would you ever consider developing a band documentary or possibly writing your own autobiography regarding your music career?
Howe: Those are all very good ideas, but all those things take time, money, and energy – and although we would love to be in Metal Church full time and make a career of it, we all have outside lives as well to keep going. It’s a difficult dance but we are doing our best, and right now we are just trying to focus on the road and support of our new album. We will hit as many cities and countries as possible with this. We can’t wait to perform our new material and be out there meeting and greeting our fans.