METAL CHURCH Legends Shining A Light From The Dark
May 12, 2018, a month ago
Sitting with Metal Church legends Kurdt Vanderhoof and Mike Howe recently, I had to share a story. It was the Operation Rock & Roll tour that rolled through a hot and sweaty day in Toronto, August 19th, 1991. The bill was unmatched, although with the grunge movement around the corner, even Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Motörhead, Dangerous Toys and Metal Church couldn’t sell out the venues. Hanging around backstage during my M.E.A.T. days, I was mingling with the Seattle legends who were touring in support of The Human Factor. Mike Howe looked down at this in-awe metalhead and handed me a shirt. Which I still own to this day. Just one of those treasured moments that, well, are worth more than buried treasure.
Howe was taken aback. “Where? Toronto?”
Vanderhoof pipes in: “Max Webster!!!”
Howe: “That was the last show. And Halford fell and banged his head. But the fact you remembered that is awesome.”
BraveWords: So the burning question is, 25 years is a long time to “take a break from the music biz” as it were. Were you doing any music?
Howe: “Well, you know I’m a singer, so I can’t stop myself from singing, so I’d sing all day long every day, all around, in the house and everywhere. You know, I joined up with some friends of mine down the street that were a violin teacher and a guitarist and we’d do folk music, soul music, or whatever we felt like covering. Just covers for fun at our house, with our families. But no music.”
BraveWords: Who lit the reunion spark?
Vanderhoof: “It was the universe.”
Howe: “It WAS the universe, it really was actually I think.”
Vanderhoof: “Well you know, I had spoken to him but we hadn’t talked in a long time. So I just spoke to him about a potential project and it just kind of caught on. And about a week to ten days later Ronnie (Munro ****) left the band. Not a fourth singer for Metal Church! I’m not seeing that happen. ‘Hey! Mike! What are you doing?’ So everything just fell into place. Perfect timing for him…”
Howe: “The planets aligned at the right time, and it was meant to be.”
BraveWords: Yeah, but you also had to realize you had to make a new record that stood against greatness. Everybody was watching you, so you knew you had to deliver the goods.
Howe: “But we didn’t feel that. We didn’t feel that at all.”
Vanderhoof: ”No, I think we knew that, but it didn’t bother us, not at all. I mean him and I working together again? He wanted to make sure before he said he would come back - he wanted to write some stuff first and see if he could still do it, and once we realized that we could then that was kind of more instigation. So once we knew, once we got excited, we knew we were going to be fine.”
Howe: “So yeah, like he just said, we said we’re not going to come back for nostalgia and just sing old songs. We have to write a record that would be relevant today.
‘This is relevant and that we’re happy with it and proud before we even go on.’ So I didn’t just say ‘oh, I’m in the band, and I’m touring.’ I said ‘let’s just write a record and see what happens and we’re going to take it easy and take it slow and that’s exactly what we did. There’s no record company pressure on us, no management pressure on us, we’re just two buddies getting back together again in his house and his studio, and having a great time.”
BraveWords: As a longtime fan, the material on XL is really strong.
Vanderhoof: “Thanks! Wait till the next one!”
BraveWords: Yeah but you know that right? You must have recognized that?
Vanderhoof: “Well, you know - yes and no. I can’t think of it that way or I psyche myself out of it. I just write what I like.”
BraveWords: And we just happen to love it.
Vanderhoof: “Exactly. And that’s literally the truth. So if we like it, chances are good that a lot of our fans will like it.
Howe: “And we liked it, we were like ‘hey, this feels good.’”
Vanderhoof: (Simultaneously) “Yeah, I’d listen to that!”
BraveWords: But in your head, were you trying to revisit the catalogue and all those beautiful eras. You still needed to sound like Metal Church, but in 2017.
Vanderhoof: “For me the great thing was that we weren’t chasing the David Wayne era. The Mike Howe era of Metal Church was a more melodic, more hard rock sound than the thrashy earlier stuff - which is much more appealing to me, because you can write more, you can be more musical. This was the starting point for me - much more exciting and much more inspiring because we could be more musical and still have it sound like Metal Church, but it would be the Mike Howe era of Metal Church.”
BraveWords: I find that Metal Church have had three key careers, because the first two records sounds like two different bands, and then this melodic singer arrived. But it was ill-timed because Kurt Cobain had the spotlight, meanwhile you were still making some great records.
Vanderhoof: “Well, that’s what we were just talking about. One of the reasons we do this now and one of the reasons that I got my head around liking the new industry and the way things are now is that you can do it yourself. And it brings it back to doing it for the right reasons, because you don’t have that major label filter and you don’t have that huge conglomerate business aspect of it anymore. The downside is that the big record sales are gone, but the upside of that is that you don’t need to seek that kind of model to make the same kind of money. So, it’s all direct artist to fans and then at the same time, you’re virtually in complete control of your career, which makes you do it for the right reasons.”
BraveWords: But you need to be on the road more often.
Vanderhoof: “Not necessarily. You do it because you want to do it, not because you have to. You don’t have a record company saying ‘when are you going to go out and promote the album? Come on, go out and make us more money!’ You don’t have any of that anymore, which is great. You’re out there because you want to be. You’re doing it for pure reasons. Sometimes that is one issue I have with it, to a fault, where you know, if it’s not being done for the right reasons, I can’t do it.”
BraveWords: Well, that’s why you didn’t do it.
Vanderhoof: “Exactly. That’s exactly right. I’m okay with that.”
BraveWords: So, how do you think that catalogue has aged over time? We’ve got all these generations clashing, but still paying attention to the founding fathers since the material is seemingly timeless.
Vanderhoof: (Enthusiastically) “Yeah, yeah, it really kind of is. And I really think one of the things about Metal Church is that by today’s standards we’re more hard rock.”
BraveWords: Well, we’re extreme metal fans, so I get you.
Vanderhoof: “The whole modern metal thing, we’re not that. We’re kind of more on the hard rock side of things, but I think everybody who is a fan of metal can go back and see where it started and what’s current now came from that - which is kind of nice to be a part of that.”
BraveWords: But how many times do you meet up with some really popular death metal band, black metal band, that grew up on The Dark or Blessing The Disguise. Those were the building blocks for all these kids back then and now they’re called Obituary and Dimmu Borgir.
Vanderhoof: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
BraveWords: ‘Cause it was still dark, I mean it wasn’t the heaviest thing on the planet but it was fucking THE Dark.
Vanderhoof: “Yeah, exactly.”
Howe: “It started the whole dark, that dark thing you know? It was the original The Dark of the dark, really like the deepest darkest of darks (Vanderhoof laughs).”
BraveWords: The first record even to this day a landmark moment - did you even recognize it?
Vanderhoof: “No. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
BraveWords: But from start to finish, it easily sits beside iconic debut albums like Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Bonded By Blood and Kill ‘Em All. It’s that important.
Vanderhoof: “That’s wonderful to hear. That’s amazing. But we didn’t know, we were just a bunch of kids. We went in there and we did that album basically live. Start to finish in ten days. We just played it live because we didn’t know any better. And so, we were very well rehearsed, and we knew what we were doing and that is one thing that I wish we could try to capture again sometime. To try to get that vibe on tape, but I think that’s why that album worked so well. And then The Dark is another record that has another completely different feel to it. It wasn’t done that way, it was done the proper way in three months. But the first album was just live in the studio, playing our asses off. You know, there’s a mistake in the song ‘Metal Church’ for example, it goes two extra times, which was a mistake, so we just wrote some lyrics over it and made it go that way. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. But those are the kind of things we just did because we didn’t know any better. And again it gets down to the purity of it. Yeah, the purity of the art form.”
BraveWords: I’ve had a friend who I went to university with and when The Dark came out he said to me, ‘Dude, I gotta throw this cassette away, it’s fucking my head up.’
Vanderhoof laughs uproariously.
BraveWords: I’m serious. I mean you don’t have to be the heaviest thing on the planet to be mentally heavy.
Vanderhoof: “Oh yeah, well that’s why we still tune in 4/40.”
BraveWords: So, how do you find singing the David Wayne stuff?
Howe: “I enjoy the shit out of singing the ones that I sing. I have a lot of fun, it’s great music, great songwriting.”
BraveWords: But you guys kind of became a bit more radio friendly - like saleable - for a major label.
Vanderhoof: “I don’t know if saleable is the thing, we just became more musical.”
BraveWords: One of my favourite songs, you rarely play is “Agent Green”.
Howe: “We were talking about that. We used to play it. It’s a great fun live song. We used to play it when I was in the band and I told these guys…”
Vanderhoof: “We’ve talked about that a few times.”
BraveWords: It has a total Rush feel in my opinion. And how about “Method To Your Madness”? When was the last time you played that?
Vanderhoof: “We played that on the Metallica tour. But that was the last time I think we played that song. We’re definitely going to be doing it after the new record is out and we hit the road again. We’ll be revamping our set and adding some songs, and some stuff that we’ve never really concentrated on live. It’s tough because there are other standards we have to play, the ‘Start The Fires’ and things like that - which I don’t mind playing - but it doesn’t leave a lot of room. When you’ve got a back catalogue that big you’ve gotta try to touch on it, but you don’t have a lot of room to play around. So it’s tough.”
BraveWords: Have you thought of the full album from start to finish philosophy?
Vanderhoof: “Yeah, we did that on this before, but to add a new set, what do you leave out? And what do you add?”
Howe: “It’s a good problem to have.”
Vanderhoof: “Absolutely. The fact that anybody even cares is wonderful.”
BraveWords: So, are you talking about the next record? Are the creative juices flowing?
Vanderhoof: “Yeah, they’re done flowed and we’re gonna start recording.”
BraveWords: What is the status on Presto Ballet and your role with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
Vanderhoof: “I was just working for them doing front of house, but I have my prog band Presto Ballet and that new album is coming out soon. I’m doing some rock n’ roll stuff too, but now it’s time to concentrate on our new record.”
BraveWords: Can you give me a quote about Paul O’Neill?
Vanderhoof: “What a shock. Boy, he seemed like the kind of guy who was going to be indestructible, and when I heard about that I was just stunned. Still, I don’t think I’ve really processed that yet, and I still would like to talk to Jeff (Plate) since the tour and find out how it went without him being involved. That’s just weird, like I don’t really know.”
BraveWords: But what he built is unsurpassed, it was one of those famoushighlights in music history, right?
Vanderhoof: “How did that happen? I don’t know, taking Savatage and turning it into a Christmas show.”
BraveWords: We still need to hear a new Savatage record too, but that’s beside the point.
Vanderhoof: “Well, I don’t know anything about that, that might be a little more difficult.”