Steve Unger (Metal Church): «We won’t let you down!»

Metal Church are gods of heavy metal. Period. I know there are some ill-wishers, critics and those who think that the band was over after 1993 or even earlier. But for me every new album by this band is a major event and the return of Mike Howe and the new album «XI»… Only David Wayne’s raiding from the dead would beat these events! Right before the band embarked on tour  and the very first Metal Church show in Russia Stay Heavy conducted interview with Steve Unger to discuss the recent news and the success of the album «XI».

Hello Steve. Let’s talk at first about your newest video “Reset”. Although the album came out a year ago, it seems that people still can’t get enough of this album!

We shot it in Las Vegas, Nevada, and it was the third video we shot with this company (Smokin’ Gun Video Productions) and this will be the last video from the “XI” album. That’s a good thing for us that we were accepted very well by people and that Mike Howe came back and fronted the band again. Things has been pretty good for the band. We are going to start this leg of the tour in about a week.

During this leg of the tour you will play your first ever show in Russia. How did it happen?

I’m not exactly sure how it all played out. I guess our agent in Europe has a lot to do with it. We had offers to play in Russia before but it just never worked out for one reason or another but myself and the whole band we are really excited to come and play in Russia for the first time.

What can we expect from the band? Will there be something special for Russia or will it be your regular set list?

Well, we’ve get our set-list worked out for this tour but when we come to a country for the very first time… We are going to be more excited ourselves, we will maybe put on a bigger show, I don’t know , anyway, we won’t let you guys down.

As far as I see the band plays mostly the songs which were recorded with Mike on vocals and some of the songs from David Wayne’s legacy. So don’t you want to add some stuff from the album “This Present Wasteland” and from the whole Ronny Munroe’s era?

Well, when we had previous singer in the band we played a lot of David Wayne’s stuff and the material on which Ronny was the singer but we didn’t play the songs recorded with Mike Howe. But now when Ronny is not in the band anymore and Mike Howe is back and we can fill that gap with the old songs which Mike used to sing and we have a the new album so it’s a kind of a natural to play some of the David Wayne’s stuff because it’s classic Metal Church but there was a lot of stuff that made it big when Mike was the singer back in the day. That is something we didn’t play for a long time. So for myself and all the guys in the band it was great to learn the songs we hadn’t been played for about 20 years. So it makes sense to play stuff that Mike sang back in the day and the new stuff.

But what is Mike’s opinion about the stuff you did with Ronny? Is there a chance that he will learn songs like “Mirror of Lies”?

You know what? We really haven’t talked about it. Not many people have brought up the question you are binging up right now. I don’t know if the band be opposed playing anything from that era, but now on this run, we have been doing, those songs have not been included. I am not saying that in the future they might not work for the set. There is a lot of good stuff. And “Mirror of Lies” is a great song. We’ve got “The Weight of the World”, “This Present Wasteland”, “A Light in the Dark”, “Generation Nothing” — four albums of cool stuff. But there is no point in playing this stuff right now. We concentrate on classic stuff, Mike’s classic stuff and the new stuff.

Well, a lot of things happened to the band in the last 2 years. Let’s talk for a while about Ronny and his departure.

He just had different ideas than we did. There are no hard feelings and we wish him the best of luck, but we moved on, we got Mike and the audience and the fans haven’t been missing Ronny, let’s put it this way.

When Ronny announced his departure the band was in a good shape — “Generation Nothing” was really nice album and it was a pure madness to quit the band in these circumstances.

Well… Yeah… Errr… I’d rather not talk about Ronny’s stuff if you don’t mind.

Sure, no problem.

Ronny made his decision, he made his own choices and we wish him the best.

Well, ok, if you want to skip it I don’t mind. Let’s talk about Mike. What were your feelings when you got to know that Kurdt asked Mike to rejoin Metal Church? Were you 100 % into this or were a kind of skeptical about Mike’s singing abilities?

I’ve been in the band since 2003 or 2004 and although since that time up until now I’ve never actually played on stage with Mike. We’ve all met Mike and we’ve been able to hang out with him just like we have with many other previous band members. Everybody is on good terms. So I knew Mike from years and years ago but I’ve never played on stage with him. I do know, Mike Howe stuff from the old day was one of my favorites that Metal Church did so I was very excited about that. With the departure of the previous singer that we had I honestly think that Mike Howe was probably the only answer that we could have — for the band and for the fans. I think that bringing a new singer — someone unheard or from another band — to come in front of Metal Church now I don’t think he would have been well received as Mike has been.

Is it true that Mike was a dentist before he returned to Metal Church?

A dentist?

Yes. I heard such rumors.

No. Mike owns a construction company.

Good for him!

Yeah. You know most guys when they break up with a band they take a year off before they join some other band and Mike basically took a break from music scene in its entirety. He was basically on ice as a singer for, Jesus, 20 years. He was raising his kids and running a construction company. When we talked about bringing him back he came up here and showed some ideas in the studio and things just fell into place. And here we are a year later.

You know what I think about Mike’s return and you latest albums? There is nothing really different from your album “Generation Nothing”. “XI” is very typical for Metal Church but it sounds fresh and catchy. So do you have a clue why is that? Is it because Mike joined the band?

I think that’s because things have grown up since we first started to work in 2003 or 2004 and the band has grown up a lot since 1984 when the band first started. My personal opinion is that the writing and maturity level has gone up a little bit and as the albums progressed each of us were putting more and more into it. And I think that Mike being the vocals of the band also has a lot to do with it being more modern today. He sings rougher which is the new stuff out today. The previous singer, I am not saying anything bad about him, he was a great vocalist but the high rate screaming and stuff made the band sound dated right away even though it was a brand new material and we don’t have any of that kind stuff with Mike. So, I think that’s why the album sounds new and fresh.

Can you tell me about a pre-production for a Metal Church album? What is it like? Do you write songs together? Do you rehearse a lot before going to a studio?

Well, alright. Basically Kurdt writes a structure of a song concisely — drum track is programmed and a guitar track with his play and maybe a bass track with his play and he send it all to us to get us his idea of the song and we have several weeks to listen to it and do what we would do and we got the idea, what he wants. And for the last album we all came to the studio at different times. Jeff Plate did the drums in New York and he sent the tracks outta here. Kurdt went and laid down guitar tracks and he called me in the studio and I came with two or three different ideas for each song and he said “I like this one” and I continued with that idea and after that we recorded lead guitars and then Mike came in and did the vocals. So even none of us was in the studio at the same time it really feels like we were because we brought the thing to the table and Kurdt for most part is cool with what we bring to the table.

So it looks like Kurdt generates ideas and you help him to materialize them.

That’s a good way to say it, yes. That’s pretty much sums it all.

My next question is about the success of the “XI” album. It made to the Billboard Top 100 charts. Did you feel that the album is going to be successful, to be your best in charts in many years?

Well, it definitely has been. We became 57 here in America and for a rock or a metal band it’s pretty good. Being in the charts is a good selling stage to the promoters and agents. Just a fact that things from the charts create more buzz, more people hear about you, more people playing and buying your CDs, you know, listening to it, more radio stations and Internet stations and all spinning your discs so basically it’s getting outta there and the stuff is kinda made it to mainstream. It is much more mainstream than it has been in the past.

Does it mean something personally to you that your album is in different charts worldwide? Is it something you are proud of?

Oh, I love the album. Out of the albums I’ve been on this is my favorite off them all. Mostly I think jus because… I just like the songs. It took a minute to find an idea that I wanted to do for the songs but basically every song on this album… The first time I heard Kurdt’s ideas, his riffs, I knew right away what my part would be for that song and for myself I did naturally work too hard on this album to come up with ideas that fit to songs. My ideas just kinda worked with everything and I guess I’m proud of that but just in general I think overall they are good songs. You know there is a lot of the albums in the past I’ve done and I don’t listen to them often ‘cause I play them with Metal Church, you know, but when I listen to those old albums I play one song and I skip two songs and I like the next song but “XI” is the album I listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

You also released a live album — “Classic Live”, so who came up with this idea and why there are no such classics like “Ton of Bricks”, “Gods of Wrath”, “The Dark” and many others? What was your idea behind picking especially these tracks?

Well we’ve been thinking about the idea of a live album for a while now and it just came the way with the last tour we made in Europe and the album was recorded in several places that we played in Europe on that summer tour. We have so much classic stuff plus the Mike Howe stuff plus the new stuff and some other songs and people keep asking “How can you not to play “Metal Church”?” or “How can you not to play “Gods of Wrath?” Well I’ve been in the band since 2004 and both songs have been in the set and with the returning of Mike How we just kinda felt we need to move on and some of the classic material had to be cut because we had a record with new material otherwise we had to play two hours set and playing festivals how would you do that? So usually you have 45 minutes or one hour slot and you gotta cram as much stuff to that 45 or 60 slot as you can. It’s just mathematics — you cannot play all these songs or you have to put together “Metal Church Medley” or something like that but we played them since 2004 and there is time to play some different older stuff as well and unfortunately to a lot people wishing “Gods of Wrath” or “Metal Church” were on the set list we cut them and right now they are not in the list.

And what about Jeff Plate’s departure?

He is a very busy guy and is a drummer for Trans-Siberian Orchestra and with all of the success that happened for Metal Church in the last year and a half our schedule became busier than it was in the past and we were really demanding a lot from Jeff. Jeff is a great drummer and a great guy he was a big part of Metal Church for eleven years and we are still friends, it was very amicable departure from the band and it was mostly himself and personal reasons. Our schedule is packed with the shows and he didn’t want to let us down. He does really well with Trans-Siberian Orchestra so he had to make a choice between Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Metal Church. He made his choice and we are fine with it. We are still friends, we are in good contact with each other and he wishes the band nothing but the best and we wish the same thing for him. And we brought Stet Howland who now plays drums for the band. You know, Stet and Jeff are good friends so Jeff was happy to find that somebody such as Stet took his place.

Well, of course I’ll be missing Jeff because he is such an awesome drummer but on the other hand this is good that the band’s schedule is so tight right now.

It is and I guess Jeff saw it that way and from his own standpoint he didn’t want to hold the band back with all these offers we’ve been getting and he just personally was unable to dedicate that much time with the band and still keep his on family life together. You know, we all are getting older so family is important and other things are may be important but everything worked out just fine.

Speaking about Stet I guess it was you who suggested him to join the band as you played together in the band called Where Angel Suffer.

Well, I met Stet when Metal Church was on tour with W.A.S.P. back in 2004 or 2005 and we kinda hit it off and became good friends while on the tour and stayed in touch all the time and a mutual friend of both of us called me up one day and said “Hey, what do you think about put up this side project together with the guy from W.A.S.P.?” He talked about Randy Piper from W.A.S.P. and I was like “Oh, that would be cool”. And that guy who was putting the band together his name was Scott Gaines — he called me up and asked me about it and I was like ”Hey, this sounds cool” and he was like “We just need a drummer and another guitar player” and I was like “I’m a friend with Stet and he was a drummer for W.A.S.P. why don’t we call him?” And I called him and he was interested and we had to find another guitar player and having two guys from W.A.S.P. we called Chris Holmes and got three guys from this band and it would name sense to call the band Where Angels Suffer. And yeah, we had that band lasting for maybe 2,5 years I guess. And later Stet called me up one day, he had a side band with Dave Ellefson called Temple of Brutality and Stet asked me if I can fill in for Dave Ellefson for about two weeks in the tour. So Stet and I we’ve been calling each other back and forth: “Hey, can you cover me here?” — “I’d like you come and play this show”. When we were on tour with Megadeth in Las Vegas and Stet was living in Las Vegas at the time and came to see the band. And after one or two months after that this thing with departure of Jeff came about and we were thinking about who we can get to play drums and I just suggested Stet Howland and others were like: “Stet would be interested?” and I said “I can call him to find out”. I called him and he was like “I’m in! When do I need to be there?” So he appeared and we played just a couple of songs together just to be sure that the feeling is right. We essentially played four or five songs together and we were like “Yeah, this is gonna work”. So he went back home and he just came up here two days ago and since Monday we’ve been having rehearsals.

Is he a fill-in drummer or do you want to see him in the band on a full-time basis?

I hope is is a full-time thing — we gonna do this European run and at the end of the tour we need to sit down and decide it: “Stet, did you like playing with the band?” And if we’ll get along with Stet he will be our temporary drummer.

You’ve been a member of the band for more than ten years so do you remember that moment when you got in touch with Kurdt and got this gig in Metal Church?

Well, back in 2003 Kurdt wanted to resurrect Metal Church and it started off with that he needed to find a singer who could sing the stuff. So Ronny’s name was brought up several times by friends of Kurdt and I’ve known Ronny, Jesus, since we were 15 or 16 years old and I had played in a band with him probably two or three years prior Metal Church was looking for a new singer. I stepped away from that band where I played with Ronny and he continued to do it and I want to play for another band. It was crazy how it all worked up. One night Ronny called me and he was like “Dude, do you remember all those songs you played ‘cause our bass player has a show in Las Vegas and we have a show here in Seattle. Can you cover him on bass?” So I came in and played bass and it just happened to be the night Metal Church sent a scout to take a look at Ronny and after that night he said “We need that singer and that bass player”. After the show they came up to talk with Ronny and said “Would you be interested in singing for Metal Church?” Ronny was like “Yeah?” And on the next day they asked him who was that bass player who played that night and he said “That’s my buddy Steve” and they made an offer: “We would like Steve to join Metal Church”. So Ronny joined the band before I did and it lasted for five albums.

So I’m out of questions for this time. I would ask a lot of questions about “The Weight of the World”. “A Light in the Dark” and other albums you’ve recorded with Metal Church so far but I understand you need to pack your stuff for the European tour. I’m looking forward for Metal Church in Russia and expect nothing but an awesome show.

Well, alright, you shall receive an awesome show, man — we’ll be on fire! I’m just really excited to see new places and meet new people. So be ready — Metal Church is coming to rock out your town, alright?

Metal Church on Facebook.

Konstantin,
May, 2017.