Warbringer: «We are not trying to be the most old school band»

Americans Worbringer went through some hard times in a past few years. First, they put out very controversial album «IV: Empires Collide», then they lost John Laux who was one of the original members. So John Kevill, singer and mainman in Warbringer, was close to give it up. Fortunatelly, he didn’t, so the band has returned with a very decent album called “Woe To The Vanquished”. We chatted with John Kevill about the album and some other things icluding Russian history. 

I am really happy to talk with you John, because Warbringer is one of the younger bands who impressed me. I started to listen to thrash metal when I was 14 but when I heard Warbringer, especially your second album, I thought “Wow, man! Finally a young band can play like old Exodus!”  

Woah, thanks man. We are trying to bring the music forward, because we love it and someone’s gotta do it, you know.

Let’s get down to my questions. Can you tell me about your latest album, especially the working process. You said that at some point you doubted the future of the band. Was it a kind of nervous to go in a studio this time?

It was definitely a high pressure situation. I personally have strong opinions that if you are a musician, and you are just going through the motions, in my opinion, then you should stop making records and stop being a band, you leav music to people to have good ideas, and I think there is a lot of truth to that in the metal scene today, so, therefore, for me to have this kind of attitude then I have to put a lot of pressure on myself to write what I think are good songs, so basically I stress the hell out of that, “Is it going to be good enough for the performances?” But at the same time I have the confidence in the ideas which is what made me want to do it. And in some ways too, the music styles, the themes and the lyrics are more of reflection of myself as an individual than the other records had, which is what I had in mind when I started the band all those years ago.

This time you choose to work with Mike Plotnikoff instead of Steve Evetts with whom you worked on two previous albums. Did you try to refresh your sound by finding someone new or was Steve jus unavailable this time?

Well, there are a few reasons as always, and well basically there were a few things that I was not fond of in the production, and we just do not want to work with the same producer over and over again, ‘cause it does not seem that it will produce different results. Steve, overall, was a great producer and he taught me a lot about doing studio vocals that i carried with me into doing this record.  But, this time when we were looking around for available producers, Mike Plotnikoff’s name came up and i did not know a thing about him at the time, because i don’t study producers unless we are making a record. So he happens to be about ten minutes from where me and Carlos lived, and it turned out to be a great studio and a great place to just hang out and he had a real mellow, laid back, kinda Zen like attitude to recording and we just agreed on all points on what we wanted to do with the record, how we wanted it to tight and clear, also powerful and punchy, organic, produced in a metal sort of way with emphasis on the guitar riff and raw power and all that, not with studio fakery, but just with very well captured performance, firing on all cylinders like we did with our audition. And so, he was on board with that and he had the skills and know-how to capture that, so working with him was an absolute pleasure, and the engineer Hatch Inigaki was great to work with. He is a creative guy like me; and we had a plethora of gear to work with, he is like me, a visual thinker. I imagine the songs taking place somewhere — kind of like Iron Maiden’s «Aces High»  — you’re flying, «The Trooper» — you’re on a horse, you know, i kind of imagine like that. Mike was very much a visual thinker of like that, with the sounds and certain tones we messed with it to fit the theme of the song.

Can you compare Mike with Bill Metoyer or Gary Holt and their attitudes towards recording? I guess when you started with the first album, Bill was kind of old school; and since then you changed a little bit your attitude towards music and tried to go in a little bit different direction, on the second, third and especially the fourth album.

Yeah, i think that has been a progression throughout, and i think you can see it even starts on the first album, «Total War» and “At the Crack of Dune» has blast beats, and «Beneath The Waves» has like a heavy metal sound like Priest or Maiden style stuff in it. I think it was our theory that if you look at thrash metal and where it sits in the history of heavy metal, because as a modern band, we can do that, you couldn’t do that if you were in it, so we can say thrash metal comes out of things like heavy metal, speed metal and to a lesser extent it happens alongside power metal, and it follows a different path.  So, all these share a border; and we can see that thrash metal has a direct link to black metal, and death metal. And you can find thrash metal bands that are very black metal leaning and others that are death, even if you listen to “Blood, Fire Death” most of those songs sound like black/thrash, where as if you listen to “Epidemic of Violence”, those songs can be called more death/thrash. So, basically it is a very wide genre; but then, no one ever says that, everyone acts like new thrash metal is just this one thing, and we have heard it before, but as a thrash metal listener, i never thought that was true. If that was true, then i would have felt thrash metal was a very uninteresting genre. So, because i like all kinds of heavy metal, i think it is a great point to play a basically aggressive, fast, brutal style because we have the ability to blend in pretty much anything because thrash metal already came out of that thing If you are taking older, more rock based heavy metal, created it, if we are talking the more extreme stuff.  Therefore adding all these new elements to thrash metal is looking at the whole history of it, adding all the elements went into it or came out of it, and trying to re-imagine it, and trying to do it with original ideas and structures (laughs). I think we are trying to do out of a genuine love for this music, we don’t want to serve you up some leftovers, you know.

That is why you decided to write and record the song «When the Guns Fell Silent», 11 minutes track. Was it a challenge for you to write something more progressive and long and try to be interesting and catchy for 11 minutes, or did it just happen that you started to write it and saw that it’s already 11 minutes of the music?

No, this song was on purpose, I think that you need an idea, and a concept, and a bit of self-criticism, in order to make a good, really long song. And i have been studying a lot of history, really fascinated with the first world war — also pops up in the album cover, and in the song «Shellfire», that theme, cause it is really grim and heartbreaking.  There is that contrast of these really brave men who strongly believe in their country, and they just get shot down by the thousands, then they send in the next wave, and they get shot down, it’s so grim, it’s almost like Warhammer 40000, but it’s real, not at all fantasy, and that is what blows my mind about it, and that is such a great subject for a thrash metal, ‘cause, i like metal that sounds like machine gun bullets and explosions, so a good subject is real machine gun bullets and explosions (laughs). But i want more than that, i want to capture the human sadness, bitterness and anger of this, why people have to be awful to each other, we haven’t found a way people can descent essentially — so, because of that i want to write some songs that are more powerful and more moving and i like the idea of having a huge epic number. So this is where «When the Guns Fell Silent» comes from the end of the first world war, and i just had the title and idea of having a real epic song closing the album. And we thought «What do we want it to sound like musically?» and what key words we and, like «big», «monolithic,» we want melody, we want sadness, we want power — all these things, so were thinking of musical guidelines, we thought of a few different bands. So, when we were writing «Guns» we thought of the epic things from songs from “Blood, Fire, Death», and the epic songs on «…And Justice For All”, the eight/nine minute songs from those albums, and when you hear it, you go, «Hey that’s what these guys were thinking”, you can kind of hear certain elements from all those things. I think the way it comes out is new, and unique, and you got me narrating at the beginning, there is some like literature in the lyrics, and i think it is one of the best songs we have ever done.

Well, and this album is the first without John Laux. I guess it’s a huge loss for the band because he was the original one along with you. How was it to write and record in the studio without him? I kind of think of this as like losing your brother.

I felt that way for a while, now i am ok with it, but it really… I cannot hold it against him, people are going to do what they do, but man i felt a sense of personal betrayal, i felt like “Why did you just give up? We’re doing so well”. And it almost collapsed, the band was about to break up before the record even came out, like we didn’t even give it a chance, that seemed absurd to me. so, i was really bitter, and upset about it, and shit; i probably still have a chip on my shoulder over it; but, i am happy the way it turned out because paradoxally, what i was is things could be a blessing in disguise. Some of the stuff i liked less about the last record was really Laux’s prerogative and influence to go more of a punk direction on a couple of songs, i am not against punk rock, just i like heavy metal better.

I guess you mean the song «One Direction» is more punky…

(Laughs) You mean «One Dimension» (Laughs). One Direction is a boy band.

(Laughs) Yes.

Yeah, «One Dimension» and any variety of punk, i prefer death, black, power, speed, all of that shit, so, because of the themes, history, war, old civilization themes, that is me 100%, and i was getting «encouraged» to not only write about that stuff, but, i have developed my writing based on that, that i can write multi-fascited things in this deep and wide subject is was, and i am a much better lyricist than i was, so i am able to tackle these subjects much better.  And i don’t  think i was going to be able to do things just the way i wanted to so that “Woe to the Vanquished” and have it be this epic thing that it is with Laux in the band, is not this thing that he is going for — certainly not now — also Adam Carroll is an original member too. The thing is i have no musical background before the band, so John Laux and i learned to write songs together, so i was wondering how in the hell am i going to be able to do this with someone else, but  um, i have worked with Carlos before, and i worked with Adam before, so when we did come together, we just naturally made a good team, each one of us filled a role, i was sort of the lyricist, ideas guy, Adam was the riffs factory, and Carlos was the organizer and orchestrator and also creating riffs. Carlos deserves credit for being a great guitar player on this record.

That is cool, because when i heard the news about John’s departure, i thought the band was pretty much dead after that.

I worried the same thing about that (laughs).

But when i heard this new track, i thought “Yeah, Warbrnger is back!”

It was quite an effort to do that, i tell you.

This time you also signed with a new label — Napalm Records. Why did you decide to change the label? 

Well, it’s like this, remember i said that the band had essentially inside broken up before “Empires Collapse” even came out? Well, we had a four album deal with Century Media, “Empires Collapse” was our fourth record; we had a choice to either resign our deal or not, we had to «not», because there was no band to resign, so i couldn’t do it, and i don’t think i кeasonably can, i had a lot of questions in my mind at the time. So, basically because we did not resign, and this is a standard thing in the record industry, they will — if you are one of their top selling bands — they will do the bare minimum release for your record, and because there is no guaranteed future, we are not going to put a lot into it, and that is what happened. “Empires» did worse than any other record coming off the back of our most successful record, and it sucks, and it’s like the band sabotaging it-self, and i still think it’s stupid, but it wasn’t my choice.  Any way, it was a huge three year process, to eve rebuild the band, and with Сentury Ьedia moving in more of an «active rock» direction, whatever the hell that means, they were never really that interested in pushing a thrash metal band like Warbringer anyway. I think they were into us when we were more of a novelty, we were so young at our first record, and the novelty wore off, we developed into a professional band which we weren’t on that first record; they seemed to lose interest in us. But Napalm Records seems to be more promising, they seem to be into promoting more riffs and stuff, so we’re on board with that.

Do you believe that a band like Warbringer can sign a deal with a major label like Atlantic Records or EMI, these days? Do you believe that thrash metal will be back like it was in the 80’s?

Oh well, do i think it can?  Well put a record deal in front of me and there will be nothing stopping me from signing it. I don’t think that is very likely, so, no basically. I don’t think so. The musical landscape barely has rock in it, so i don’t think so, no.

Well, the same here in Russia, bands like Warbringer are not popular, I’ve never seen anyone in  Warbringer’s t-shirt here.

I have never been to Russia (laughs).

Well, last year, if i am not wrong, you played a tour with Enforcer, Exmortus and Cauldron…

Yeah.

I would like to visit one of those shows, because to me that was like The Big Four of young heavy metal bands.  i really like Enforcer, Warbringer and Cauldron. So how was that tour? Was it like a party, or was it done in a professional way?

Oh yeah, it was pretty friendly, Exmortus and us go way back, and Enforcer and Cauldron were really nice guys,  and all four of us were bringing some different form of heavy metal to the people, not some dressed up, modern bullshit version of it. I mean everybody was bringing a real form of metal and different one too, because i feel that heavy metal is a very wide and expansive form of music. Ш believe it was just a great tour and a great show and i was really happy to be on a tour where i liked all of the bands.

Сan you recall something special from that tour, like, Сauldron were forced to sit out of this tour, when they crashed, and Carlos was forced to play with Enforcer? 

Yes,  Carlos did a number of shows with Enforcer, because they were having a whole lot of problems with visas, and other problems, so it was the tour kind of banded together, and on the way home us and Exmortus had to all pile in the same van, because one of the buses had broke down, and we helped each other out, because it is kind of difficult out there on the highway, you can’t take like 6 to 10 hours every day for months on end for granted, you run through the gaunlet of the elements, idiot drivers, cops, mountains, technical breakdowns, falling asleep, it was kind of a wakeup call when Cauldron’s van flipped, through no fault of their own. See what happened to them was these guys were driving, leaving Houston going to New Orleans, they’re just on the highway, and another car crashes like maybe a hundred meters in front of them, and all the debris and junk from the other car’s accident shredded Cauldron’s van’s tires, when they drove passed it, which made their van flip… And they had to go to the hospital, one of them hurt his neck pretty bad, they had to drop off the tour, it was very serious.  And it scared the hell out of all of us, because that could have been any of us, you know, like honestly, this is one of my biggest fears when touring. I heard so many stories, and seen a lot of shit on the highway, i know that there are times when there is nothing i can do, like when a tire blows out at the wrong time, and hits the truck next to us, i might die randomly, just trying to get to the next show; and that is what drives me crazy about the job we do here.

What about your relationship with other thrash bands, like Lich King, Evile, and all these bands from so-called «New Wave of Thrash Metal»? Would you like to join forces with them and play?  You, Evile and Havok and maybe Exmortus?

Hmm, it depends because i have a different opinion about every band you named. I think Havok is a great band, Toxic Holocaust is a great band, Evile i plan to see when i get back to work, Havok too, we go way back, i was in contact with David before there was a HavoK or a Warbringer demo even out yet, because we were the only two people my age group who were making thrash metal in the country, so early on, what very few bands there were got in touch with each other pretty quickly — especially on the West Coast. I will tell you my philosophy — i am not much into the silly and goofy shit, old thrash that i am not into either, a band like Lich King, i am less than enthusiastic about them personally. Let me tell you dick move from that guy. They asked me once «Can we put a track about Warbringer on our record?» and i thought that would be kind of funny, you know, like an old school rap about us, and all we got was «Warbringer can eat our dicks» (soft laughter). That guy Tom is such a bedroom warrior, you know, i don’t understand why you want your artistic statement to be about what is stupid about the music scene, seems so childish, when we have a genre with songs like «Disposable Heroes» and stuff.

Well, i find some of their stuff funny.

I find it funny too, but i find it funny once. The problem with «funny» songs is that they are funny once,  i don’t have a problem with it but i would never write it. I used to love it — first music i got into when i was a kid was weird Al Yankovich, and i was into it for about a year and a half, and i hear all the songs, and they jokes are not new anymore, when you have songs written around jokes, it doesn’t hold up as music is repeated, and so that is why i will never write comedy songs — the best funny song on a scale of 1 to 10 maybe an 8, best serious song maybe a 10.

I thought it was funny when they wrote a letter to Dave Lonbardo asking him to join Lich King, and said that Dave should carry his drums because they have no drum tech or something like that, and that Dave should also pay for gas, everything like this because he is rich and they are not.(laughs).

It is true of us, hey, i could ask Donald Trump to join our band, does not mean our record is good.  Only the record being good makes the record good.  I’m sorry, i am an asshole, that is why i have the opinions i do, i think i feel like i have to be highly critical of music, including and especially myself, or i can’t make the music i want to, so i have such harsh opinions about music and i never apologize for it.

Well, that is the thing, strong opinions, i like people with strong opinions, because if they say yes, this is yes, if they say no, this is no… Not maybe or maybe later, i like straight forward people.

Yeah, i have to agree, when it becomes difficult, those people are the ones who get things done, oh, i wantt clarity, when i say that funny thrash is not as good as serious thrash, some music opinion, and someone says «I disagree,»  i try to argue why i think that — this isn’t me telling you to stop thinking like that; it is to tell you why i think like that, there is a difference in communication, and here (in the U.S.A.) people hear what they want to hear, so if a person wants to think that you are getting down on them and mad, they can think that, and it is funny how that works — but to clarify, even if you are like «Dude, Justin Bieber is the greatest music in the world», and i would strongly disagree with that, i probably tell you why his songs are no good. Well dude, if you like music that is shitty; is that hurting me?  Well, no… So, i express an opinion for the sake of expressing an opinion so there is no intent to change anyone else’s mind… If that makes any sense.

My next question is about your fourth album «Empires Collapse», about which you said it was too experimental for old school thrash metal people who judge albums by covers and by  everything like that; they would find that this was not «pure thrash», not old school.

Well um, we are not trying to win a contest to see who can be the most old school — that was never our goal in the first place, we’re just trying to make good songs. But, i think over all, i think «Empires…» was a better record than people gave it credit for; i thought the guitar tones were lighter than i would have liked them to be, and if you heard some of those songs, like «Hunter-Seeker,» «Tower of the Serpent» those are fast and ripping songs. The verses «Towers of the Serpent» go very deep into death thrash, they are more extreme than «Severed Reality» verses, and so i think certain parts of the record because of the lighter production, and the more punk-like influenced songs, and there’s this melodic, progressive black metal influence too, the ordering of the songs didn’t put a lot of the fast songs in the first half; and that may have been a mistake too. There’s a couple of things i would do differently with this record. I don’t think this is our strongest record start to finish but i think it has some of our strongest songs start to finish as individual songs, so we took what we liked about this record and what we did not like before moving forward on this one. What we pretty much decided was to keep the more melodic, extreme metal experimental stuff and some of the technical guitar work and ditch pretty much anything upbeat from that record, which i think was a mistake, a couple songs that i would chose to just not do those again, and make it really brutal and mean.

I know that you have toured with just about every thrash metal legends, from Destruction Kreator, Overkill Exodus…

Certainly Testament, Megadeth for a week once, never Metallica or Slayer. Maybe one day (laughs). If those guys start paying attention to the metal scene, they would realize that it sucks… I think it was 1986, when Metallica got to go on tour with Ozzy, who had been a legend since the 1970’s in Sabbath. Shortly after Metallica became a really big band, and they could go and do their own thing. It sucks the whole generation of bands are not taking out young, promising bands to new audiences, the only exception was when Megadeth took Havok out a couple of tours in a row, which really helped them and you could see that, but that was just because a stupid family connection, not for the desire to promote new, exciting and       viable metal like this Avenged Sevenfold, Ghost, not really metal. Well that is what i think there, i do not want to see a future, where heavy metal is taken seriously if they are only keeping a few elements in there otherwise, just playing pop music. Pop dressed up at heavy metal, and that sucks because that is what is getting the support and attention when there are really good bands i think out there who deserve it, that really do carry legitimate heavy metal for, and seep down that is our mission, to make the heavy metal we want to hear and make it is great as possible.

My question was about your attitude towards bands you have played on tours: did you change your opinion about the bands you played with or toured with? Like you thought they were cool, and in reality they are dicks or something like that.

(Laughs)  Well, i can’t tell you who are «dicks,» but some of them are, not many but, yeah there are some bands who were definitely full of themselves, it’s true and it is also true for some bands like this. Sometimes you don’t get treated well on the business end, and i will just say that; and it makes it hard for bands like our kind of size, because they feel stepped on, like you don’t get a time to shine. Because you have all these tours, professional tours, like our fourth record «Empires…» where one band was doing 4 hour sound checks and for no reason they have been at this for 30 years, and with a full crew. It takes us twenty minutes  and we have the same exact two guitars, bass and drum vocal, same configuration, nothing different and i just don’t understand it. And i think personally the younger bands put on more energetic performances than some of the older bands, because there are older bands still making great records, i can’t say who is who, because this is all still current. But yes i also have strong opinions about this, and it sucks how sometimes like we had to sound check after doors for a half hour set, and looked like complete chumps, and we hear «Yeah, Warbringer — these newer bands are never going to live up to the old age”. Yeah, no shit! We have to go on with shit sound, looking like chumps through no fault of our own, and for 5 % of the total guarantee, and it is demoralizing a lot of the times with certain things in the industry, and there are times too when bands who have treated you very badly on the business end are then trying to be friendly to your face, and that pisses me off!

What you’ve just said about older bands is what i think about some of them! People still go to Kreator’s shows, for example, while they haven’t change their set list in 10 years, they still keep playing the same songs, the same set list every year, and people keep going to their shows. If there are two shows – a show of a younger band and Kreator’s show, those people think, “Of course i’m going to see Kreator”. I guess this is killing the metal scene.

It’s this attitude like we only respect legacy bands and it is stupid pretty much, it’s a stupid attitude. I think the reason we do respect these legacy bands is for the landmark albums they made, which were really good albums, but if a new band makes what we think is a really good album; which there are a few i could point to in this new wave of thrash metal, as well as death metal, and heavy metal like Enforcer and Cauldron like we talked about earlier who made some really good albums i think we should give these albums the same realistic-like critical appraisal that you would give an old album. I don’t think it’s fair that just because an old album came first, it is automatically better. I think you can make an old idea better, ‘cause even the best classic record has its limitations. If you are an astute listener, and you could see they did not mean to do a third verse chorus here, they could have done something different to close this song, any critical thinking, they could have had a sharper, tighter, better written version of a something, and to do it in a well written way, and i think the bands doing that which do not get mentioned are not getting the ear they deserve. We got a review for “The World Torn Asunder” once, a while ago, from “Metal Sucks”, and the reviewer gave it two stars; which i thought was crazy because we had just improved on every aspect, better production, better planning, everything improved, i improved a lot on vocals and the songs were a lot catchier, that’s what i thought going into that record, and the guy was «It’s old school thrash metal and i am over that so i don’t like it» and i am like «Dude, «Future Age Gone” has mega riffs on it and «Torn Legacy» has crunchy death metal stuff in it, and we have this epic power metal solo closing out «Treacherous Tongue»  is anyone ever listening, that is what i thought ever since “Waking into Nightmares”, and we get «second rate Slayer clones!»  and i am like «Goddammit, we are doing all the shit that Slayer does not do, through their entire discography starting with record number one!»  Are you fucking listening?  I know Slayer’s discography, so i know what is going on here, i am paying attention and putting a lot of effort into this.

What about touring in Russia? Did you get any offers from local promoters to come and play some shows in Moscow, Saint Petersburg or any other city in Russia?

I would love to, but never got an offer to do so, never been to Russia, i have been to the Ukraine once. I have a strange fascination with parts of Russian history. I have studied the whole Nazi-Russian war, with all the tanks, more than most people i know over here that is for sure, ever since i was 5, so that has been an area of fascination for me, and i think there is a trait of Russia that i have found, that no matter how hard anyone hits Russia, Napoleon, Hitler, the Teutonic knights, it doesn’t matter, Russia will not go down, like rocky, it’s like the “Rocky” movies — no matter how hard Rocky gets punched in the face, so much he looks like hamburger meat, he keeps fighting, and i think that is fascinating, and i do not believe that many Americans know the extent of that in Russia… It’s a fascinating trait, and i want to go and see the actual place, and sort of get a sense of the mindset and i really enjoy learning about the places when i travel, and russia fascinates me because of my love for history.

That was my next question about your passion with history and your study to be a teacher of history, so are you going to work at some high school and teach kids?

I’m more into European history, and one of the things they should teach in American schools is more about European history, ‘cause one of the problems with the way American history is taught, is we tend to like to look at ourselves as if we are wearing a superman cape, and there are facts that contradict this, and    that is actually part of what i want to do my own little part to expand on this, and right now there are these «nationalists» who want us to go to war in the Middle East, and one thing Americans do not know in the resent living history, like things our grandparents do not know, is we have never suffered war like other countries have. Look at the worst us wars by death toll, versus European death tolls; especially like Russia during the World wars II and it is not even comparable, like a mouse to an elephant; and there is not one person in america alive who can understand the gravity of losing something, like twenty million people in four years, it’s like fuck, i don’t even know how the us and the USSR competed like that during the cold war, if people understood what happened in the world, like here what is often not taught is world war one, which was so complicated narrative with no real good guy to emerge, the Second World War, which was the consequence of the first, it is easy for us to say we saved the world, more or less. What is weird is who really defeated Hitler was Joseph Stalin and about one out of seven Russian people who died for it, and i think it is a great historical lie for Americans to glorify ourselves the way we do — for every American who died in the Second World War, there were fifty Russians that died.  And it tells you something about the fierceness of the German army on one hand, and it’s one of the most interesting stories of military history cause operation “Barbarossa” was soooo one sided, but it’s not a German victory, and i mean, who else  in history got their butts kicked so hard and kept fighting and ultimately won. It’s something about the discipline of the soldier, the mindset and it also, horrifying were the policies of Stalin is what created that style of attrition warfare that they were doing,  anyway, i love this subject…i just cannot understand how humans can do these things — it fascinates me.

This is really cool that people still want to learn history and teach others, so, this is what i really appreciate, i wish you with the best of luck if you are going to teach in high school.

Probably early college, where i would be able to do a bit more advanced lessons, but it will be three to five more years before i am a teacher,  ‘cause i will be touring too, to that will slow me down.

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Thanks to Richard Thompson for transcription of the interview.

Thanks to Maxim Bylkin (Soyuz Music) for making this interview possible.