Asphyx – Still Raging, Still RollingSunday, 10th January 2021
With over 30 years in existence, wreathing many a line-up change (and even a band name change along the way), Asphyx has been a foundation in the death metal community. For good reason too – with their streamrolling take on the genre, emphasizing meaty yet fun riffing that hits like a ball of energy and some occasional doomy forays, Asphyx continue to do the genre proud with their upcoming Necroceros. We spoke with frontman Martin van Drunen to get his thoughts on the band’s latest, their staying power, as well as a look back at his first time hitting the stage with Asphyx.
Dead Rhetoric: What can you say about Necroceros as the latest Asphyx album?
Martin van Drunen: I think with this one, we were really able to mix a few styles and do things we haven’t done before in a couple of songs overall. The difference in mixer as well, I think those the biggest changes. It’s a little evolution for a very conservative band [laughs]!
Dead Rhetoric: Releases don’t come quickly to Asphyx. Is it a matter of getting older and having more stuff going on, or waiting until you have something you are really satisfied with?
van Drunen: I think its both. You could take a lot of riffs and work with them, but then you end up saying, “eh it was okay,” so what we really do is sort the best from what we have. Really good riffs – you can’t demand that Paul [Baayens] write an album in a month with those super riffs of his. Sometimes it takes a while. He’s very busy – you know as a teacher that there’s more to it than just standing in front of class. We are depending on his input. So times he doesn’t have anything, so we just leave it be. There’s no rush or hurry. We just let it come to us, and then decide later on if we have enough material.
This time, when the pandemic arrived and all the shows were cancelled, we had plenty of riffs on the shelves. There was quite a lot of material that was done, it just needed to be rearranged a bit. We took the time that was available and then all of the pieces fit together.
Dead Rhetoric: I know there was a lot of effort put into Hail of Bullets from a lyrical stand point. Do you feel the lyrics are of equal importance to the music?
van Drunen: To me, personally, yes it is. First of all, you stand there later on, on stage, and you don’t want to scream the usual bullshit. It’s cool to do a little bit of humor and the usual death and gore, but in my case, I can put some history stuff in it. Also, when all the tracks are done, I start writing lyrics so I can shift and realize what kind of topic I can take on for a particular song. I think the best example to give is “Botox Implosion” or “Three Years of Famine.” One is a completely tragic, melancholic doom-type song, and you can’t put lyrics like that of “Botox Implosion” over that, as it’s kind of a funny one. So for me, it’s really important. I like to read a lot, I like to do some research, and I’m very interested in history. So it’s very much a passion that I put on paper combined with the metal that we make.
Dead Rhetoric: Being involved with numerous bands for over 30 years, where does the thrill continue to come from with death metal?
van Drunen: It’s still the enjoyment and passion that I still have for the genre itself. I’m still a metalhead. Especially now, with the way Asphyx is going, it’s like a band of brothers. There’s more to it than just being in a band with the four of us. Whenever we see each other, it’s just big, big fun. The main thing I’m still doing it for is to be able to go onstage and rage. I’m fortunate to still be able to do it at my age [laughs], I don’t know how long but to go on stage is why I do it. It’s a drug, it’s an addiction.
For the whole band, right now it’s tough times because you can’t do what you want to do most. You want to hit the stages, so it’s tough for all of us. When we stand there before a show and wish each other luck, it’s fantastic to be with these guys and play in front of the crowds. That’s my biggest motivation. Also the challenge, of writing an album like this. But the stage is definitely in my gut.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel has allowed Asphyx to stick around for such an extended period, even if there were some pauses, and even name changes, in there?
van Drunen: Hard to tell, since there has been so many line-up changes [laughs]! The thing is, when you look back and hear all the albums, Asphyx never abandoned their style. Even if you take albums like God Cries or Asphyx or On the Wings of Inferno, there is still this specific Asphyx spirit in it. No matter the lineup, everyone always took care to not disgrace the name of Asphyx. I think that’s strong point. From 2007, we basically picked it up. We get a lot of criticism for the fact that Bob [Bagchus] is no longer in the band, but the thing is, when he decided not to continue anymore – his family was suffering from it. Every weekend he was gone, and he said that wasn’t the reason he took a family and kids. So he decided to give his family priority and quit. But he told us to continue – he was rooting for us. So we found [Stefan Hüskens] and he’s been a good replacement.
Bob has always been involved with us – he never really lets that go. People should realize that whatever we do, it’s still with Bob’s approval, and he’s still 100% behind what we do. We wouldn’t put something out if Bob didn’t agree. If he thought it sounded like shit, we’d go back and see if we made a mistake somewhere. But we know what we are doing [laughs]. And we know we are never going to disappoint him. If we don’t disappoint him, we don’t disappoint our fans.
Dead Rhetoric: I’m not one that understands that sort of criticism. You’ve been involved afterwards and a lot of bands don’t even do that. They just cut ties and do their own thing, and even change their style entirely. What you guys have done is pretty awesome.
van Drunen: Thanks a lot. It’s important to us. We are still friends in the end. I’m still friends with Eric Daniels – he just put out a Soulburn album. We see each other regularly. The same with Bob. The whole bunch of Asphyx too – we are still good friends. It’s important. Like you said with what other bands do, we would never keep the same name and completely change. That makes no sense. Our fans will not take that from us, that’s for sure [laughs]!
Dead Rhetoric: You have a recognizable voice within a genre that often lacks one. What do you feel was key for you in developing your vocals?
van Drunen: In the past, the real development came with [Pestilence] Consuming Impulse. The demos before, I did them differently. But on Consuming, I discovered this kind of throat. Then it developed automatically, by extensive touring you learn the right technique, and all I had to do then was just maintain it. I do that by regular training, even now. I need to learn the lyrics of Necroceros, so what I do is take a while and just start screaming, just to keep it warm. So that when the pandemic ends and we can jump back on stage, I’m ready and I can do it. That’s the whole thing, just to keep in shape and maintain it. It may sound weird, and of course, it has changed a little bit over the years. On The Rack, for example, I had this really high scream that is now a little out of reach. Back then I was in my 20s and now we are 30 years further, so I think it’s only normal that it changes a little bit. I’m lucky and blessed that nothing hasn’t happened, like vocal cords getting damaged or having weird feelings in my throat. I cherish it, I really do.
Dead Rhetoric: What is death metal to you? What does something need to sound like to be death metal?
van Drunen: First of all, I think there needs to be a certain sound – it’s a rough translation from a Dutch word but something like ‘Hell’ – but it’s something we always try to achieve. It’s also important to have a recognizable sound structure. To me, it’s important in death metal that people can come to a show and forget about their worries. They just listen to easy songs – ones that aren’t difficult to get into your head. Death metal is really just a very extreme form of good old rock and roll. It’s about having a good time, having a few beers, meeting cool people, but in an extreme form of music. Sometimes there’s funny lyrics, sometimes the lyrics can be slightly educational, and there’s always very heavy guitars and drums. It has to be loud and heavy – heavier than the regular heavy metal or power metal. For many years, I’ve been trying to find a definition for death metal, but I really can’t to be honest. People just have to go to a concert and watch it for themselves. And catch the right band to do so as well [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: I like what you said about it being an extreme version of rock and roll and just having fun. I think some of that translation has gotten lost over the years in going really deep into the technical end. To me, when I hear death metal, I still want a fun riff that I can get into, instead of something I’m more just wowed by the technicality of it.
van Drunen: That goes for me too. That’s a bit of a difference altogether. The technical things – these guys make music so that they can show their audience how good they are in handling their instruments. That’s okay! But it’s a completely different approach. You aren’t going to a concert like that to drink a beer and watch someone onstage playing difficult chords and leads and going “oh wow, I’m really enjoying myself.” No, you aren’t. You are appreciating what the guy is doing. Maybe as a guitar player, you might learn something from it. But that’s different, than if you go to a show where you just rage and party with your friends and just forget about what you have to do tomorrow. That’s what all kinds of music are for – though there are other genres with the more technical stuff like jazz where you can sit and listen. It’s cool, if you like that kind of genre, please go ahead – I have no problem with that. But more me, it’s not something I’m interested in.
Dead Rhetoric: So I take it you are on board with a lot of the death metal community turning the clock back a bit towards more of a straight-ahead sound?
van Drunen: Definitely! That’s a good thing! I felt like the genre was getting a bit lost over the years. You have all of these other genres popping up, but the spirit and vibes at the end of the ‘80s were kind of gone. It’s a cool thing to see that stuff now coming together, even with some younger bands. They feel from the old stuff, or they see bands like us or Autopsy or Benediction, and they see that we still have that mentality. To just do a good show and have a good time, and that’s what it’s all about.
Dead Rhetoric: What stands out as a memory to you from the early days of the scene, either with Asphyx or Pestilence?
van Drunen: Maybe the fun part, since I’ve been remembering this story lately – my first show with Asphyx was kind of a Spinal Tap moment. Bassist/vocalist Theo [Loomans] was still in the band at the time and I only knew a few songs off the top of my head, but the band had asked me to finish up the set. Theo had introduced me as the new vocalist, so I wanted to enter the stage really cool, like “Alright, here I come,” but there was a cable I didn’t’ see so I ended up falling right onto my fucking mouth [laughs]! But I got right up and said shit happens, and it was what it was [laughs]. Couldn’t get any worse!
Dead Rhetoric: With the pandemic, what have you been doing to keep busy this year?
van Drunen: Many things. Nowadays, when you finish an album, there’s a lot more to it than in the old days. Now they want you to record some videos, so you have to exchange ideas about that. With all of the web magazines and podcasts, I feel like I’m doing a lot more interviews than in the past. In the past, there was a lot on paper too, and that took more time. But there’s also the mixing, the artwork, the video stuff and shooting. We have been busy. Time has passed by really fast.
There were a couple of shows that we did in Germany still, which were corona-shows, but with the crowd sitting, and a limited amount of visitors. But the most important thing was that they were happy and grateful to attend a show again. For us, it was better than expected – sitting metalheads was going to be something. But they were raging around like they were standing. Throwing fists, banging their heads – it was weird but it was cool to do those three shows. It was a special experience. When we thought things were improving, now it’s getting worse and there’s no shows really planned again. The next period is going to be tough – not sure what I’m going to do then!
Dead Rhetoric: That said, are there any plans for 2021?
van Drunen: Yeah. The thing is, you have to be ready. Especially now, with authorities getting into vaccines. That could be a game changer. But it will take months. Then we have to be ready for shows. They need to be booked so that they can happen. If they aren’t ready, then it cannot happen, but at least we are ready. Traditionally we always do a release show where we can play the whole album, but for now, that’s impossible. The situation will not have changed by then. We are considering doing a stream, but Asphyx with no audience? I don’t know about that one. On the other hand, like the corona shows, it could be an experience that we don’t the opportunity to do again, so we are still talking about it. If things change drastically, we would love to do a traditional live show, but let’s see how things develop.