After All – A New Beginning

Thursday, 13th October 2022

Starting in the late 80’s, Belgian act After All have been delivering a brand of speed/thrash metal that contains solid melodic hooks plus interesting riffs, songwriting, and overall musicianship-oriented performances. They’ve recently arrived at their tenth studio platter for EoS – featuring new drummer Bert Guillemont and vocalist Mike Slembrouck, opening up their aural horizons as far as harmony possibilities while delivering tracks that make you think of acts like Artillery, Heathen, Paradox that maybe don’t necessarily get the acclaim and prestige as the US Big Four or Teutonic brigade.

We reached out to guitarist Dries Van Damme to bring us up to speed on the latest lineup changes, the six years between albums, how they’ve maintained licensing deals for their albums throughout their career to their benefit, favorite shows/touring memories, the Belgian old versus new metal scene, and hopeful plans over the next year or two.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your first memories of music growing up in childhood? How did you make the progression into heavy metal, and eventually the desire to pick up an instrument and perform your own music?

Dries Van Damme: You are basically asking me to recall my whole life. (laughs). That’s cool. I’ve always been interested in music, and there was always music in the house when I grew up. My grandmother was a piano teacher, and my mom played piano. My dad was a big Beatles fan. When I was twelve, I got for a special occasion, being brought up Roman Catholic there was a christening, and you get a lot of presents. Some of the presents included a portable record player and a cassette player, which was really cool, you could use to listen to the radio and tape what you heard on cassettes. Those were the best presents ever, a lot of local radio stations at the time I started listening to which was really nice in the mid-80’s.

One night I tuned into a local radio station, unaware of what was to happen. I bumped into a hard rock/metal show on that station. I had seen pictures in the weeks and months before that but could only imagine what these bands sounded like. All of a sudden there was this music on the radio that made an enormous impact on me because I understood the music – it really grabbed me, and it always stayed with me. That radio station offered a crash course into heavy metal at the time, one hour a week. From Maiden, Dio, Manowar as well as underground stuff like Bathory, Voivod, Satan, Venom, the more extreme things. As an eleven-year-old at the time, it made such an impression. Now I’m 49, still talking about this 38 years later. It’s really great as a kid when you hear Mercyful Fate for the first time on the radio, Slayer as well. From there, I bought records and then in high school my first year I met Christophe (Depree) who is still in After All to this day. We were like the only two kids in high school that listened to metal, we were destined to become friends and exchange records.

We took it from there – at 15-16 the idea came of playing that music ourselves. I had been going to a music academy, I knew the theory, I could play a little piano. Going to the guitar was the next logical step. It was one step at a time. We tried playing guitar, we learned a little, step by step we found the other guys and started a band. We really started being serious about playing music in the late 80’s. Never quit.

Dead Rhetoric: Eos is the tenth studio album for After All – the band’s first in six years, and first appearances for latest drummer Bert Guillemont and vocalist Mike Slembrouck. How do you believe this set of material developed on the songwriting and recording fronts – did the extra downtime allow the band to focus more on deeper details for a better final product?

Van Damme: The last question, it definitely did. We certainly took our time. It’s been a long journey between records, it’s been six years between the records. We never have taken that long of a period before. When we had the previous record Waves of Annihilation out in 2016, right when the recording was finished the drummer quit and then we just started promoting the record, playing shows, and the singer decided it was not for him, the touring and being away from home. He was not happy on the road – and that’s kind of a problem when you are in a band like ours, that’s what we want to do. He quit, it was relatively easy to find Bert, it was a little more difficult to find the right singer. We had a lot of guys who tried out, sent tapes and videos, from all over the world, even the US – but really, we wanted someone to fit in within the band and not work on a project basis, so it had to be someone local.

And then we finally found Mike. By that time, at least a year had passed, we did some shows. We wanted to take some time off to write the record, so another year passed, and then when we were ready to go out on the road again, coronavirus happened. And that took another two years. It was all in bits and pieces. The last two years we had a lot of time to work on the recordings, and we just took our time because we knew that as long as the coronavirus was going on, we couldn’t go anywhere anyways. We used the time for the best possible purpose, we refined the songs a bit more than we had previously. It’s a really refined record in terms of writing, we took a long time to get every detail right. We would have wanted it to be a little faster in releasing it, because six years’ time is like forever.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you think Mike’s vocal delivery and range opened options up for the songwriting in After All?

Van Damme: Yes, sure. We get that a lot, because he’s quite a different type of singer. He’s more a heavy metal singer than he is a thrash metal singer. To us that opens a lot of new possibilities in the way that we can play fast, heavy stuff that’s speed metal to compliment it with vocals that are melodic, open to use harmonies. There are a lot of background vocals on this record that Mike recorded, playing with harmonies. We are a thrash metal band, but it’s not Zetro or Tom Araya style. We are more like Flotsam & Jetsam, Agent Steel, Toxik, all great bands that we like ourselves. Playing intense thrash metal with great vocals – real singers. That was the thing we are after, we found him in Mike.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the cover art design from renowned artist Travis Smith – how did the process work between the band and Travis, and how do you feel about the final outcome?

Van Damme: The outcome is absolutely mind blowing. It’s a real cool piece of art. It has all the classic elements in it. The things we really like is that when you see it on the CD format, the morning star that is the centerpiece really stands out, and when you see it on the vinyl, you see all these smaller details coming out. It’s really well done. We talked to Travis for quite some time in the past already because we are fans of his work from Nevermore, Opeth, Death, bands that he has worked with. We liked his style, and we have the new lineup going, it feels like a new chapter for the band. After we did two or three covers with Ed Repka, who is cool in his own right, we thought it was time to try someone new. We got in touch with Travis, it all fell into place, we started exchanging ideas.

The idea was this new beginning, a new chapter, as the central theme for the record. Eos is Greek for ‘new beginning’. The artwork reflects that as well, the tree of life, the morning star, all these little details around it. A really cool guy to work with, and I am totally thrilled with the result.

Dead Rhetoric: You are now a part of the Metalville Records roster. Where do you see the importance of their work these days, and has the process changed in your eyes over the years as to what the label is responsible for compared to the duties of a band when it comes to promotion and business for these records?

Van Damme: Well, the times are different than say twenty or thirty years ago. In the sense that the whole industry because whether you like it or not, we are making music and artists, but also a part of an industry where the purpose is to sell something and make money off it. That industry has changed over the years. What we see now is, we have always been quite an independent band, we’ve always been the owners of our own work, and we’ve always worked with licensing contracts. We were never really tied very closely to a record label, always keeping our independence. That’s proven to be a good strategy for us, and that’s how we continue to work with Metalville as well. We will see where things will take us after licensing this record with them.

The thing you have to do as a band is you can’t just sit back and relax, wait and see how the record company will sell records for you. It takes a lot of hard work from us as well. Spending all my time doing these interviews, which I like because when people are really interested in the band, I don’t mind taking time to chat about the record and chat about metal. Of course, it’s time you have to invest. The same thing with social media, websites, there is a lot you can do as a band yourselves. And that’s something we’ve always done. It’s the combination of factors – Metalville can put the record in physical stores for us, that’s the main thing that we cannot do ourselves. They do that for us in Europe, the states, and Japan. When they do a great job with that, that’s half the work- and the promotion we split duties a bit. We work together on it, the record is getting great reviews, the response has been great. We have a lot of interest in the band, especially now from the US – which is a first for us, we’ve never been very active in that territory. This is new, and it’s great after all the time that this record can help us work on something new.

Dead Rhetoric: Having been a part of this band from the start, what qualities for the songwriting do you believe are necessary and essential components to make the grade for After All? Do you believe you’ve strived for a natural evolution as a group over the decades, considering the seasoning and experience you’ve gained as artists?

Van Damme: Yes, sure. It’s ten records, it would be an interesting experiment to listen to them back-to-back from album one to album ten and hear the evolution every forty-five minutes. Never done it myself, it would be a total of 450 minutes, that would be quite a ride. I’ve explained this in interviews many times – we always try to make a different record. Honestly, I don’t feel like we’ve made the same record twice. Of course, evolution is gradual so when you compare the ninth record to the tenth record, it’s not that big, but the little steps – when you go from one to ten you can hear the difference. There are twenty-five years between album one and album ten, it’s a different band with different people, recorded and composed and produced with a totally different mindset.

When you asked me what it takes to be a good writer for the band and the music to make the grade, I can’t tell what it is. It’s not something that you can scientifically determine, this part is good, and this part isn’t. It has to do with how you feel, what the song needs, and a lot of times it’s about what you can leave out, really. Trim down a six-minute song which is okay to a three-minute song that rips your head off. That’s the thing. That’s probably the biggest thing you have to have, realize that you have to be (critical) on your own stuff, and leave out parts. The song will be better when you leave things out, and that’s a tough decision sometimes.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you describe After All when it comes to your live performances compared to what listeners experience on record? What have been some of the most memorable shows or tours the band has done to date?

Van Damme: Of course, on record and especially with Mike now in the band and his abilities to double up the harmony vocals, there will be more of a difference between the record and the live performance than there ever was. For all these years we’ve been a band that rehearse in a rehearsal place every week. And what we play there is what we play on the record. Of course, you can add some extra guitar solos and vocals on the records, but the basics are more or less the same thing. We stay pretty close to what is on the record when we play live. Through the years when you play a song a couple of hundred times, it can be a little different and change through the years. In general, we are pretty close to what we are on record.

The most important shows – we try to be the best we can, and in theory it shouldn’t matter if you are playing in front of ten people or ten thousand. In reality, it’s sometimes a bit difficult, it requires a lot more effort to be the best possible band in front of ten people versus ten thousand. We opened for Judas Priest here in Belgium, one of the first tours they did with Richie (Faulkner) on guitar. That was at the time, quite an achievement to be on that level and invited to that show. To be treated by Priest and their crew as equals, it was a very impressive way how we were welcomed there. The thing that impressed me most is that Rob Halford came out to watch our show – we looked to the side and he’s watching the show. He doesn’t need to do that, but he’s genuinely interested. That was a real cool moment.

We toured with King Diamond. We played the Graspop Festival in Belgium, which is a huge festival. Iron Maiden was the headliner. We’ve toured with Overkill, Anthrax, we’ve played with so many great bands that we’ve listened to when we were kids. In the late 80’s when we were growing up, a lot of the bands that we were fans of, we have met through the years, opened up for, or toured with. It still is special. Andy LaRocque we met on the King Diamond tour, he’s a nice guy – and he said that he would play guitar on our next record Cult of Sin, and he did. It makes it cool as a fan, at that moment in time, I’m not just a musician as I am still a fan. It must have been right somehow.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the Belgian metal scene these days? Do you think upstarts like Evil Invaders have been able to revitalize the speed/power scene from the originators like Acid, Cyclone, and Target among others, where younger musicians are excited again, and are there specific styles that seem to go over better than others?

Van Damme: That’s a tough question. When we grew up and started playing ourselves in the late 80’s, the first generation of Belgian bands like you said, Acid, Killer, Crossfire, Ostrogoth, all these bands, were more or less stopped already. It was the time of thrash metal, and later on death metal, and these bands were so out of fashion, it was incredible. They were old bands nobody cared about them. I was the same way, I listened to Acid, Ostrogoth, and I was 12 years old. I heard those songs on that radio show I told you about. These bands disappeared into the background for quite a long time. At least 15 years. Since the year 2000, you saw a renewed interest in these old bands, the revival of 80’s bands, and these names came up again. A lot of these bands have reformed, tried to play shows, it’s really cool to see kids go crazy on material that was written long before they were even born.

There are a lot of new bands. Evil Invaders is probably the best example, and one of the better-known bands from Belgium, throughout the world. Cool guys, we’ve played a lot of shows together, and we are playing more shows together in October/November. They are going for it all the way. There is a cool scene. Belgium has been more well known for it’s more extreme bands- Aborted is one of the better-known bands, our bass player Frederic used to play with them. It’s a small country and a small scene where everybody knows everybody. The death metal/black metal thing was big in the late 90’s, early 2000’s. Ever since, it’s been a bit more balanced. The music we played was totally unfashionable, and now it’s cool again to play this old school speed metal. We just keep doing what we do, and every once in a while, we are fashionable. (laughs). It goes away for a couple of years, and then it comes back.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you name three to five albums that helped shape your love and passion for heavy metal, that often fuel your inspiration when it comes to After All – and possibly an underrated band in the genre that people need to spend more time investigating or digging into?

Van Damme: That’s an interesting question. There are a lot of great bands out there. My personal favorites include Mercyful Fate, Voivod, King’s X, Fates Warning, but I also like Slayer, Pink Floyd. Somehow it all reflects a little in our music. I think the main bands I like the most, inevitably are the ones that made an incredible impression on me as a kid. That is Armored Saint, Savage Grace, Agent Steel.

Bands to discover, that’s hard to tell. There are so many, I could drop names that are obvious to you and me, but not to a lot of other people. I still talk to people that say, ‘ah- Heathen they are incredible’. But the band has been around for well over thirty years, not last week! (laughs). They did their first demo in 1986. I can enjoy The Number of the Beast as well as the obscure demos. Great music is great music. The Number of the Beast is one of the best metal records out there, for a reason. There is so much out there to discover. 80’s metal is my thing. When you imagine you are a young kid now, with all the bands you can discover, Anvil Chorus, Cirith Ungol, Heir Apparent, Metal Church – all this great stuff.

I like having a broad vision on music. I like the new Watain record as much as I like the new King’s X record.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the horizon for After All over the next twelve months to support this new record? Are you hopeful that the next record won’t take six years to hit the streets?

Van Damme: (laughs). Yeah, well, we will see about that. I hope that it will be less than six years. We definitely have another record in us. One record with Mike and Bert now, it would be really sad to leave with it at only one record. A lot will depend on what happens in the next twelve to twenty-four months. We want to play live, we have a small tour coming up this October: Holland, Germany, Belgium with Satan and Portrait, two great bands on Metal Blade. A nice package with these three bands. We will dip our toes in the water again and see how it is on the road. And then we will have to start planning for next summer. We should play the Alcatraz Festival in Belgium, as we did last year. There will be some exciting things ahead of us, bit by bit we will start writing new stuff. Hopefully in about two or three years we have another new record, and we can discuss it again.

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