Gama Bomb – Speed and NostalgiaFriday, 2nd November 2018
Seems like everyone wants to tear down a band, as everyone has an opinion and desires to express their thoughts. Singer Philly Byrne of Irish thrash act Gama Bomb starts our Skype conversation chuckling at a recent review he came across regarding his band- which according to him states ‘Municipal Waste are running out of inertia … Gama Bomb, another band who haven’t hit the same caliber of popularity, have even less of a reason to exist.’ He follows it up by telling me, ‘if you couldn’t laugh at it, you’d be in the wrong business. You give up a lot to do this – and then you have people sitting on their couch empowered to say things like this.’
Which is a shame, as Gama Bomb bring back a lot of that youthful excitement that made thrash a staple in this scribe’s metal diet during the 1980’s and early 90’s. Embracing a love of 80’s nostalgia, movies, sci-fi, nerdiness, and a bit of modern social/political commentary – these gentlemen have carved out their own faithful niche audience globally and continue to feed those hordes with more material to their liking. Fresh off the release of their sixth album Speed Between the Lines, Philly handles my various questions as quickly as the band he fronts – with a keen sense of humor and thoroughness to boot.
Prepare to learn more about Philly’s vocal injury and recovery, their take on video making, special moments in the band’s sixteen-year career, as well as what we can possibly expect for Gama Bomb down the line.
Dead Rhetoric: Speed Between the Lines is the newest Gama Bomb release – the sixth studio record and first in three years. What did you hope to achieve and get across with this effort compared to the previous Untouchable Glory effort?
Philly Byrne: That’s a good question. What did we hope to achieve and get across. In terms of achievement, we are sixteen years in, this is the sixth album we were making. We hope to continue hacking through this path that we are sort of making. I think that in itself is a great thing to aspire to when you are in a band, to continue to have new ideas. We wanted to make a better record – Untouchable Glory was one of our best records we’ve ever made. I think that and The Terror Tapes came at the right time, at a time in the band’s life where it was threatened. We had a record label shuffle, our original guitarist left, I suffered a vocal injury that I had for years. Those two albums as much as there were ideas on there that were fantastic, they were strained efforts to help the band exist, that we couldn’t be held down. With this album, as soon as we started putting it together we realized that we had been revitalized in a way.
My voice returned miraculously after about five years of injury, back to where it was when I was about 24. We were all getting along really well, the atmosphere within the band is brilliant. We’ve all reached quite a mature stage in life. The music came together really well, we are all on the same page in terms of what we wanted to do. There were less arguments about things. It was incredibly hard work but it was very fluid in how it was written. The work ethic in terms of making your records, it was a very well-oiled machine. We wanted to hit people harder than we ever have before, that modest aspiration has made us develop the best album since Citizen Brain, which was ten years ago this year.
Our aspirations are modest. We don’t have the scale of a band of Municipal Waste, but not everybody does. They Might Be Giants aren’t as big as the B-52’s. It’s just how it is. You are the type of artist that you are, you find the audience. We don’t want to take over the world, we quite love where we are. Our audience knows who we are, they love what we do, and they get the message we have. We want to persist in giving them that music that we like, with messages that we think are important and about having fun. This album, we wanted to keep going and like AC/DC, release the same album but better. That was our goal- and off the back of that we get to do what’s cool, going on free vacations together, meeting new friends, and people handing us weed and booze for free, and playing music to crowds of upbeat dickheads (laughs).
Dead Rhetoric: You mentioned the fact that you are just feeling like now you are getting your voice back to normal after your vocal surgery. How scary of a proposition was that, and where do you think your range is now compared to before the surgery?
Byrne: I think I’m only acknowledging now what a serious knock personally it affected me. I’m still working through some of the non-visible and non-audible damage that that causes, which is damage to your confidence. I feel like I’ve only really finished working on getting my confidence back this year, even though my range came back a year and a half to two years ago. If my headspace was like it is now, I’d have been able to sing that way on Untouchable Glory if I really had to. I was afraid of it. I think it did set us back creatively, to the point that there were things that we couldn’t do that we really wanted to do. I was worried to perform live. In my personal life it resulted in some bad habits that affected my voice as well. Your voice is an important part of your identity. Your voice portrays emotion much more easily than your face. You can’t pretend you are happy with your voice like you can pretend with your face. Everybody knows that’s how it works. It really strikes to the core of your identity, it’s almost like someone who experiences damage or a disfigurement to their face. A part of who you are to the world is robbed from you. I talk a lot and love to sing. The way we rallied as a band was a form of therapy for me. I took it very seriously, the rehabilitation I started to take seriously a couple of years ago when I went to an opera teacher.
The recovery has been sweet. In terms of my range, I think my range has never been better. My voice is strong, and well supported. It’s very clean, and I think when we were making our early albums I would just kind of shriek to do the highest note in the world without pitching it properly. I would go for it, whereas on this album I was able to be more like Rob Halford and deliver it with loads of power. That was great to play with that. My body has grown around the injury and fixed it. I’m happy with that.
Dead Rhetoric: You made two very entertaining videos for “Give Me Leather” and “Bring Out the Monster” for the new album. Discuss the importance of the video medium for Gama Bomb and what you hope the viewers get out of these visually entertaining clips?
Byrne: The visual for Gama Bomb is extremely important. As soon as we knew the name of the band, we already knew what the logo would look like. Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, Dawn of the Dead- that’s the look for our logo, and everyone agreed. We’ve always been very visually focused, and we are lucky that Joey’s brother Rory is a world class graphic designer and a creative director. Rory’s is the sixth member of the band, we work with a stable of artists. The design, the appearance of things, our merch, they help make it clear what the message of the band is. Music videos are an extension of that.
We are huge movie fans, every album references our favorite movies. It’s inevitable that we would become more and more engaged in videos. It’s never been more important to have music videos than it is now. Ten years ago, the whole thing was people were downloading albums and illegally streaming them. Now people are streaming music on Spotify and Apple Music, and the way people are discovering the music is through video. People will watch a lot of music on YouTube. It would be a waste if we don’t have the maximum amount of fun doing music videos. The two things I can’t stand are singer, just head and shoulders singing straight into the camera. With “Give Me Leather” I did a little bit of singing into the camera, but not much. In the 1990’s, every band had an old man in his underpants in the video. What was that about? Blue lights, underpants, old man. With our music videos we want to bring some entertainment to the equation.
“Bring Out the Monster” is a very unusual heavy metal video. It’s funny and silly but it has an emotional story. I have a best friend, he’s a monster, and he pisses me off, I lose him and my girlfriend is a significant figure in the video. Most heavy metal videos don’t go that far in giving the music video a plot. We want people to feel like they are watching a mini-movie when they are watching these videos. It’s tremendous fun to produce these videos, it’s my side hobby. We will make a few more videos for the album as well.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you pluck from your own personal collections in some of the shots for this video with memorabilia from Married With Children (t-shirt) and Raiders of the Lost Ark among other things?
Byrne: Everything that is in those videos is ours. In the video for “Bring Out the Monster”, that’s all my stuff. I am a massive toy and movie geek collector. I have Indiana Jones stuff and I collect vintage 1980’s toys. For toy geeks out there, there’s a lot of trainspotting to be done. “Bring Out the Monster” features a lot of rare toys, including Laser Leg Skeletor, which is the rarest Masters of the Universe action figure. It’s got a Raiders of the Lost Ark cinema standing from 1981. I totally geeked out, and everybody was laughing at me that I included a lot of my bizarre fetish for 80’s things. That’s who we are and we are not ashamed of that. Kerry King breeds poodles and we collect rad 1980’s stuff.
Dead Rhetoric: Does songwriting get easier or harder the deeper you dive into your career as a band? Do you find yourselves being more critical to achieve the best results for the final product?
Byrne: Does it get more difficult? No, I don’t believe it does. I think there are peaks and troughs when it comes to songwriting. I think Untouchable Glory was harder to write, or maybe Terror Tapes actually. There was a lot of disagreement, and a lot of hard squabbles trying to get the songs together. We had lots of demos and we made some decisions on the fly. You can go through periods where an album is a bit harder to put together. We’ve been very lucky and we have a very good process- the guys will write some riffs and put them together in Dropbox. I’ll write some lyrics and demo some vocals over the top – give them back to the band and we decide from there if it’s half good or all good.
The ability to do this is enhanced. Those muscles are there. In terms of ideas for songs, that’s what I always wonder about. When am I going to run out of ideas or stories. There’s always something new- we wouldn’t have written “Kurt Russell” ten years ago, a song about being best friends in a fantasy with Kurt Russell. We didn’t have the lunacy quite at that point. We definitely wrote more songs for this album than we ever have before. We had another seven songs that we didn’t use. We were very critical of the songwriting process this time. We went through the material like a fine toothcomb to vote on which songs would go on the album and which ones wouldn’t. Even when it came to the studio we were highly critical of the songwriting, there were things that we completely re-wrote while we were in the studio. Dolly Parton once said, ‘costs a lot of money to look this cheap’. With Gama Bomb, takes a lot of brains to sound this stupid (laughs). We were nitpicking over this stuff. The people who think, ‘oh – it’s pizza thrash’, they have no idea how scientific this shit gets.
Dead Rhetoric: Right – and I think the people struggle to understand the effort that you put into it. It’s not as easy as people think to create twelve songs that are cohesive from front to back in a way that is consistent album to album the way you guys are able to.
Byrne: Well thank you. No creative endeavor is easy. This is why they say everyone has a book in them, but very few will ever write one. I may be paraphrasing that. Creativity is work – it’s like building a house, and going and working a job. Unless you are willing to put the hours in, and be serious about doing the work, it’s not going to happen. We are good at saying to each other that there is work to be done, and we get down to do it. You release the album, you hope it goes well, and then back on the road.
Dead Rhetoric: Can you tell us about the rather simplified cover this go around? What was the thought process behind going for a stripped-down aesthetic?
Byrne: The album cover was quite fraught. We went through a lot of ideas, and we didn’t have an album name for a long time. We ran through lots of ideas, at one point we were going to call it Never Report (laughs). We wanted to do something along the lines of Screaming for Vengeance, and what an amazing album cover that is for Judas Priest. It’s one thing. We’ve done a lot of covers that are situations, Megadeth covers where there is a thing going on. Untouchable Glory was more about a movie poster look. We established it could be a thing, once we hit upon Speed Between the Lines, we thought about should we have a running man, do we want a robotic cheetah with a rocket on its back. We had a more complicated idea, a gear shift in the middle and an airbrushed landscape with the running man in the middle of it – a speedometer glowing in the background. It wasn’t his fault, but it was too much – we hadn’t made any decisions yet.
We gave it to Rory, and he came back with this amazing, really simple cover. When you create an album, especially today, you have to think of it as a banner. We knew it would look so cool in a 12 x 12 format. It was reminiscent of Journey, Judas Priest, Whitesnake and all those classic 80’s albums. We had multiple options with more color and shapes, but we decided no, let’s just go with this simple concept. We push things that are not necessarily heavy metal but our fans love that. It could quite easily be an 80’s synth band cover, but people say it’s amazing. Our why is more important than the how, and I think people are starting to get that.
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