Warlord – Appreciation, Communication, Determination

Sunday, 12th May 2024

The fifth studio record for Warlord is Free Spirit Soar – paying homage to guitarist William Tsamis, who left this earth in 2021. Recruiting a stellar group of musicians including vocalist Giles Lavery, keyboardist Jimmy Waldo, and guitarist Eric Juris among others, veteran drummer Mark Zonder wanted to showcase to the world that this group still can produce quality heavy/power metal that sounds as vital and potent as it was during the 1980s. We reached out to Mark via Zoom as he brought us up to speed on the behind the scenes work for the new record, the appreciation he has for this set of musicians, favorite Warlord memories and times with Bill, his evolution as a drummer and where he sees the art of drumming today, plus some talk about Fates Warning, A-Z, and more.

Dead Rhetoric: Free Spirit Soar is the latest Warlord album – which pays tribute to Bill Tsamis, who sadly passed away in 2021 at 60 years of age. Discuss the way this record came together – did you have any worries or fears of living up to the standards of what Bill has always put forth with this discography?

Mark Zonder: No, because if we did, we wouldn’t have done it, very truthful. Let’s just say I had a singer who couldn’t do it, it just didn’t sound very good, or we just put the songs together and it sounded like some Afro-Cuban fusion thing. When Bill passed away, I am not going to say I knew it was coming, but he was in really bad health for a couple of years. That’s why after we did everything in 2013-14 with the shows in Greece, we were all set to start recording another record, going back to that Deliver Us style, three-to-four-minute songs, forget the orchestras, let’s just go old school. Bill would send me stuff; I had stuff on the computer. Months would go by, he was sick. He didn’t all of sudden pass away. When we were recording Rising Out of the Ashes, that was 2001-ish, he was having gastro issues, and he was taking all kinds of medication for it. He would be weak at times; a stomach can knock you down. It’s not like a little headache you can deal with; he was in a lot of pain.

When he first passed away, my initial thought was this is done, this is half of Warlord. What was I supposed to do – a week after Bill passes, hey man, we are coming out on tour, and we have a new record out? Not that it wasn’t a can’t win situation, but people held me to a standard x amount of years later. Wait a minute – the guy just passed away. We didn’t kick him out of the band – he died. Giles shows me these emails, and he’s a really close friend of Bill’s. He would go to Florida for weeks at a time – he was a better friend to Bill, because Bill and I lived far apart, and we never really hung out. We did music in Warlord, and I can’t remember an argument we ever had. He did his thing, I did mine, we came together and that’s the way it was. Bill said two things – when and if I pass away, keep my music going, put it out. Get a guitar player, it’s not that intense – he used to tell me that when he was sick towards the end. It was a couple of years; Giles and I were knocking things around. We had songs, Giles had a couple of things.

A lot of this had to do with High Roller wanting us to do this. Because there is no point in doing this as a fun project, everybody is way too busy and has too much going on to be able to just take the time out to do a record just because. Between Eric Juris, the guitar player that Giles found, Jimmy Waldo and Giles, they did all the heavy lifting – I just played the drums. They dug out all the old tapes, put the songs together, Bill’s tracks are on the album at times. We knew we were going to keep this in a 1984, Warlord style. Eric the guitar player spent a lot of time and energy studying Bill, getting his tone and that sound. Jimmy Waldo too – he isn’t a neoclassical kind of guy, but being a pro musician, studied it. He’s using this kind of keyboard. Phil Bynoe on bass, he had played with us and did some Warlord shows, that was no big deal. Giles came in, did a lot of lyrics and melody lines, and he kept it right in the same vein.

It was all about Bill. And the other thing that people need to realize too is when we play live, I don’t know if it’s going to be the greatest tribute band you’ve ever seen, but it’s going to be note for note. There’s no hey, I need a keyboard solo – it’s going to be as if Bill was there. Super tight, super clean, the music of Warlord, not the music of Warlord, the next generation.

Dead Rhetoric: So, I’m guessing what made High Roller Records the right label and attractive to you is the respect and admiration for the music and legacy Warlord has established, right?

Zonder: Absolutely. They’ve been phenomenal for Warlord. I just wanted to know where they were thirty years ago (laughs). I’m just kidding. They did the reissues that Giles worked his butt off to pull out everything. The fans really had a package – posters, this and that, demos, all kinds of stuff. There are no complaints whatsoever. As I’ve gathered, they are more of a reissue company as opposed to hey, here’s a new record. I don’t think we went shopping. Giles told me that High Roller wanted us. They are fans of the band as well, and that’s always helped. They are the ones who are responsible for the cover – which is step two from Deliver Us. What are we going to do – come out with some modern peace sign? Everything is kept right in line, and it’s supposed to be that way.

Dead Rhetoric: What did you enjoy most about the musicians assembled this time around for this record – and the skill sets / energy put forth for these songs?

Zonder: Honestly, it wasn’t the playing. What I really appreciated after all these years of dealing with different situations. I did an interview the other day and the guy said, wow you’ve played in a whole lot of bands. I said no, I’ve done a lot of recordings for other people – but there’s been five bands I’ve played in. One of the greatest things I’ve come to appreciate in this is professionalism, maturity, and here’s the big word that no one wants to hear: communication (laughs). You have to realize we are not five guys living in the same house anymore, okay man – time to practice, time to do this. You talk about spread across the world. I’ve had experiences where people disappear for two or three months while trying to record an album, I don’t get it. That was a big thing – okay, this is going to be easy.

The fact that these musicians also kept things representative of what we were doing. All three of those guys Jimmy, Eric, and Giles, went to painstaking detail to make it happen. I cut these tracks in one or two takes – bang, it was over. I wasn’t approaching it like a current thing, let’s bust out the electronics and get that funk rhythm, no. I got into that mindset where we were playing in a warehouse in 1980 or whatever in San Jose, put down the songs like what they should be. Warlord was about the whole band, the sound, no one took the spotlight, it was about the song.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking back at the career highlights for Warlord – what do you consider some of the benchmark moments? Be it specific albums, shows, festival appearances, or other experiences where you knew you were making an impact with this group?

Zonder: That’s an interesting one, because there are different phases per se. Just me and Bill for hours, Bill would be in his Kiss boots and dog collar, bashing out the songs. In the beginning we were playing “Battle of the Living Dead”, “Lucifer’s Hammer”, “Winds of Thor”, they may have sounded a little differently with the tempos way too fast, those are just memories that just stick. I’ll never forget when we did our first demo, and we came home with the cassette, it was the first time we were hearing these songs for real. Alcohol may have been involved, but every play that we played we would put our ears closer to the speaker, it sounded better. By the time it was all said and done, we had our ears in the speakers. Always recording and hearing what things sounded like.

Probably one of the biggest current ones were playing the first Greek shows. We played Wacken, at 2 am in the morning, and there were still 40,000 people. It was Wacken, and big, but loosey goosey. It wasn’t very intimate. We played these Greek shows, Bill and I sat backstage, he was playing his scales, I had my drumsticks, warming up. You hear the opening band playing, but over the top all you hear is, ‘Warlord…Warlord’. There was a look between us that was twofold. This is awesome, and also – what took them so long? It was the culmination. This is what it must be like to play in Iron Maiden every night. They just love you. It’s an indescribable feeling.

Dead Rhetoric: In the early 80s, Warlord tried their best to separate themselves from the scene that was going on – being selective in the types of shows you did…

Zonder: There was absolutely no shows because we couldn’t find a singer that would stick and was able to do this. The problem we had is back in the day, you had Mötley Crüe, you had Ratt, you had Poison, that general thing, Warrant – and here we are coming out cranking “Child of the Damned”, it was much more of a European thing. The reason we did that video, way before cell phones, way before the internet, way before anything, we had more of an appeal in Europe and we wanted this to get played to hopefully book a tour. We thought we were ahead of the game, we tried anything. We were at the US festival, just couldn’t find a singer that stuck. We talked to people like Mark Boals, Jeff Scott Soto, Neil Turbin, it goes on and on. That’s what caused the problem. We didn’t have the band – we played every night in our rehearsal place to people without a singer. It wasn’t our choice, believe me – we were ready to get out there in a moment’s notice.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some of the fondest moments you had in your time with Bill, especially during the early days building the brand of Warlord over the 80s and beyond?

Zonder: It was always interesting back then. You have to remember the time and the place; it was before all the ‘hair metal’ when heavy metal became really popular in the 1980s. We were looked at as freaks back then, especially in San Jose. We didn’t care, we were doing our thing. Just the playing, we were both very young. That’s where we learned. It’s interesting when you play with just a guitar player, maybe that’s where my whole style came from. I don’t have to worry about a thing playing with him, playing to that type of music. I took that thing further on in various other bands, not get so caught up in just being the guy keeping the time, that you could be musical. You grow, you learn. The whole thing of being in a band, that was really cool.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you consider your evolution as a drummer over the years? Do you find there are certain things you concentrate on more now that may be different in terms of approach or technique than how you were as a player twenty, thirty, or forty years ago?

Zonder: Wow, twenty, thirty, forty. You could even get to fifty to be honest with you. Oh yeah. Early on it was a lot about physicality, sitting in a warehouse. There were no samples. I try to play every day; I love to play even to this day. We will go out to play in August, and I know we’ll be doing some double bass stuff, and when you don’t do it, you need to get back into training like an athlete. I continue to do it. I just studied a lot of different things growing up. I was blessed that I learned to read when I had lessons, I know how the whole thing works – the cerebral side as well as just being exposed to so much music. It’s not really rock music, when I was growing up it was Motown, it was Tijuana Brass, it was all about songs and the groove. I keep that consistent and my whole thing is about the groove. The kick and snare, the two and four, it doesn’t really matter what goes around it so much as long as everybody can lock into that.

I just try to push things to the limit. I spent a lot of time incorporating over the last few years things about the space. Everything doesn’t need to be crazy – it’s cool to play really simple, because when you come out of the simple, it really stands up. It’s the same thing when we put songs together for A -Z, I tell Philip during this verse, on the first two bars, don’t play anything – it will be the hi-hat and kick. That’s a little trick I remember stealing from Foreigner, when you kick in it comes to life. Spending a lot of time thinking about how things are going to sound in a stereo feel, when I am recording. I can’t play 220 beats per minute on a double kick, but why would I want to? It’s more about the originality, the groove, the sound, and incorporating it all. The more you learn and the more you know, the more it opens up things, it’s an endless thing. It’s like an ocean, the more you play, the more tools you get in the toolbox. That’s where the whole style comes from.

Dead Rhetoric: Where do you see the art of drumming in the rock or metal world today? Do you have any specific worries or concerns that you see/hear within younger drummers that you hope they take into consideration to become more individual or original at their craft?

Zonder: When I was a kid, my whole thing was… I had my favorite artist guys. I set out at an early age to sound like Mark Zonder. I wasn’t setting out to be a working musician. I wasn’t going to play in cover bands or dance bands. I rolled the dice, and I wanted to be a rock star. I’m not going to deny it, you want that, that’s what drives me in a way. As much as I love playing, creating, and recording in a studio, there is that thing of being on stage. That kick and snare in a live gig, that’s where the power is. I start playing quarter notes on a kick, I can start getting the crowd going. A guitar player, not so much. The drums are such a powerful and controlling thing.

As far as today’s thing. If you want to go to a school and be a drummer to play sessions, that is limited because it’s done in a box. I spent a lot of time, energy, and money in my studio, it’s all old school analog. I have an analog console, it’s that sound. You can’t really get that recording straight into a $200 box in your computer. It won’t have that sound. I feel the art of recording is gone. People don’t really care about what records sound like these days. When it comes to the album covers, I go old school. The next A-Z cover, I’m having Hugh Syme, who did all the Rush stuff, do that album cover too. This is a business and I’m trying to sell you something. If I try to sell you this in a brown paper bag as opposed to this beautiful box that has all these different layers, that’s what I think people deserve. Our audience takes something and loves that old school philosophy. Myself as a consumer, I want to open up that package like I was a kid, reading things, taking in the art. I don’t see myself shifting over anytime soon.

There’s a big difference between gymnastic drummers, and that’s all cool. It doesn’t work when you are trying to lay down a groove. Yes, there are a couple of bands out there that do it, but it’s a limited market. I never paid attention to twirling sticks, the thing that looks like you are having a stroke while you are playing because you play so fast, it’s just noise to me. It’s about the mood, and the drummer is the one who dictates that. There’s not a big band influx like it was happening back in the day, where there were different drummers. Are you in a pop band, playing covers? Until you play in a band, apply it to a song, that’s when you become a musician.

I thought I was great playing a groove even within Fates Warning. Instead of trying to make things complex, it was always about the groove, and I tried to contribute to that band when I was there. You could always tell where things were going, even if it was a little odd in there. I thought I did a good job of keeping things together.

Dead Rhetoric: Did you have any worries or concerns entering Fates Warning when you did, during the Perfect Symmetry era, especially because of how the band was stylistically on their previous albums?

Zonder: What really saved me is the fact that I knew how to count. I knew music. If you don’t have that knowledge, and someone says they are going to play in seven, what’s seven? There are certain bands that will have a drummer play in six and stick an extra beat or playing eight and chopping it off. I go back and listen to Perfect Symmetry sometimes and think, oh my god, what am I doing? It was one of those things where I put my head down, listened, and just went for it. I was hanging on with my fingernails, this was not easy to find the groove and find my way through. There were times where things were too over the top, and it had to be dialed back. Coming into a new band where you are the new guy, it helped that Jim was a big Warlord fan. He contacted me, I didn’t go looking for a gig. Even though they were from back East and I was from Los Angeles. It was an interesting situation.

It was a great gig. And I was very frank with Jim when we first started talking. If you were going to continue where you guys were, I’m not your guy. That’s not really my style. I was just being honest. You have to dig the music. They told me they were changing around, and that was part of the reason why they got in touch with me, our current drummer couldn’t take us where we wanted to go. Okay, he sent me the tapes, and I worked with the parts. Just go from there and do the best that I could.

Dead Rhetoric: What are some of the biggest worries or concerns you have about humanity and the society that we live in today?

Zonder: Oh, now we are getting deep! It seems like people don’t know the difference between right and wrong. We could deep in examples. That pretty much sums it up. Instances where I see something, and I go you have to be kidding me. That’s not the way I was raised. I came from a place where my dad said, ‘it’s black and white and if you think it’s grey that means it’s black’. If you are trying to convince yourself or talk yourself into something you know is wrong, no. My thing also is, I always speak my mind, I try to be polite. You can call me an asshole, but you aren’t going to call me a liar. I think there is so much that’s going on… I don’t even know where to start. It’s hypocritical of so many different things. I would just turn off all the politics in general, live my life, do my thing, do the records. I see stuff and I’m flabbergasted how another human being can see something in a different light. October 7 – how can anyone think that what happened on that day sounds cool? As far as bandmates, Phil and I are so far apart with our ideologies, but we are friends that respect each other because we have conversations. We don’t get on the keyboard and tell each other whatever.

You can have an opinion you want on these rights and those rights, but how can you look at October 7 and not have a problem as a human being. There was a ceasefire on October 6th, and there are still hostages too – American hostages. That’s the part that scares me. Certain things are so core value to me that someone else can say no – that’s wrong. Especially when it comes to humanity.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next on the agenda for anything related to Warlord or any of your other projects, bands, etc.? And what’s left on your personal bucket list to accomplish in the music industry?

Zonder: Well, the Warlord album comes out. Gigs will start at the end of August, playing a lot of festivals in Europe. We have been getting an amazing response, 3,000-4,000 seat places we will be headlining. Next year we have booked things in the US. Once we start playing, it’s just the music of Warlord played at a very, very high level. A-Z is finishing the second record, Ray has one more song to sing. That because of logistics probably won’t come out until early next year. We will put that out on the road as well. We missed the opportunity for the first album. The second record, a little heavier, a touch proggier, a little thicker, definitely has a lot more umph to it. Busy with all that. I do a lot of recording when people ask me to do it. It’s good to have two bands I’m in control of and working with great guys. Everything is good in that respect.

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