Metal Church have long been respected as pioneers. Coming to prominence in 1984 as part of an exciting new wave of American thrash metal acts that included Metallica and Slayer, the Seattle based act never quite achieved the same levels of success as their peers. Surviving line-up changes, management problems and “all those kinds of wonderful rites of passage”, the band are back, releasing the critically acclaimed ‘XI’ in 2016 which sees founding guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof reunited with early nineties vocalist Mike Howe. We sat down with the pair in Belfast on the night of their first ever Irish show, for a walk through their chequered history. Hanging in the balance; Eamon O’Neill.
How are you today?
Kurdt Vanderhoof: Awesome. I feel pretty good, man. It’s great to be in Ireland; we’ve never been before.
Mike Howe: We’re in Ireland, yeah, it’s awesome!
So the obvious question is; what took you so long?!
KV: Those kind of questions, I guess you’d have to ask booking agents.
MH: Yeah, they have to invite us. We don’t invite ourselves; that would be rude! You can’t invite yourself over to someone’s house.
Metal Church has had a long history; did the band perhaps fall through the cracks a little bit along the way?
KV: I initially started the band in the Bay Area [of San Francisco], but nothing actually developed until I moved back to Seattle, Washington. We fell through the cracks after the fact, through line-up changes, bad management decisions, bad record contracts, and all those kinds of wonderful rites of passage. So, yeah, we did kind of fall away. I get asked a lot; is it something that we’re bitter about? Not really, I mean, it’s just kind of the way it worked for us. But the fact that we’re now the underdog and still around, it’s kind of cool.
Despite that, Metal Church have always been very well respected, particularly among your peers like Metallica.
KV: Yeah, it’s great to have that respect from all our peers. We feel the same about them. They were very good to us. We all started from the same little thing, and we were all part of the same scene, working for the same cause, so there was that community thing back at the time.
Mike, welcome back to Metal Church; how did you come to re-join the band?
MH: Thank you; it’s good to be back. It’s his [pointing to Kurdt] fault! He called me up in the Fall of 2014 and proposed it, because their last singer had left the band, and he was just expressing how he wasn’t going to be able to go on with Metal Church with a fourth singer. So he was casting, and you know, he’s a good friend of mine, and I felt - not that I owed him - but I felt that I owed him just out of friendship and respect to talk about it. I left the band for reasons of all the things that he talked about; bad management, bad record deals, but I wasn’t bitter; I walked away saying I was lucky to have the career I had. But there were things that had started to ruin it for me, and I didn’t want to go back, but then we discussed the change; how we could do things digitally, and work together over the internet.
So things moved forward from there?
MH: I said; “let’s take it baby steps and see where we go from there, but let’s start with the music first”. I didn’t commit to come ‘back’ to the band; I just said; “let’s see if we can write some music together that’s as relevant today, as it was before and see if we still have that spark”, and obviously we feel we did, because that’s why we’re here today.
You must have been delighted Kurdt, when you heard Mike’s voice on the new tracks for the first time.
KV: Oh yeah, especially because he sings better now than he ever has. That’s one of the things that I have such respect for him. Working with him, he’s a consummate professional, and he’s also healthy and pro, and all the things that come with lead singers you don’t get! Those things are huge, especially at our age when you want to do it for the enjoyment of the music. But he and I wanted to work together again, because when he was in the band, I wasn’t in the band; we never got to play together.
MH: That was an added bonus; now we can be in a band together, and play together on stage. We’d never done that, and that was very exciting.
There seems to be a real excitement around the band again since the release of ‘XI’.
KV: The response we got for the new album was more than we had expected. As far as America’s concerned, we charted higher than we ever have. There’s some really great things about the new music industry for us now, because we do it ourselves, for the most part, and we do it at our pace without any pressure. There’s very limited outside influence, and that was one of the things Mike wanted to check that out before coming back, which I totally understand!
MH: Going back to that, and the theory of coming back to the band was the things that went wrong with the other albums. There was always something with the last albums that bothered us, and we’d look back and the record cover sucked, and the sound mix was not the greatest. Our song writing we really liked, but it got pushed in ways that we didn’t like because of management and outside forces. So this was like we got to go back and do some unfinished business, and do an album all on our own, start to finish, from the creative part to the recording, to the mixing. Kurdt was amazing, and we know what we want Metal Church to sound like and present to the crowd, and to the fans. This is the first album that we’ve ever been able to do that from start to finish and say; “This is us - how we believe Metal Church should sound and look, and act”. If it falls on its face, or if there’s something wrong, then we can only blame ourselves, but at least we did it and we tried our hardest.
You made a fantastic video for ‘Needle And Suture’.
KV: It was filmed outside of Las Vegas.
MH: It’s as ‘wash’, basically. Vegas is a desert surrounded by these big hill mountains, and they have these flash floods that happen, so they have to protect people down river, so they build these river dams, or ‘washes’.
KV: It was fun. I mean, it was 90+ degrees, and all day in the sun, by the end of it we were like; “Are we done?!” But it worked, and it was all worth it.
MH: Jamie Brown, the director did a great job. He made us look really good.
The band initially broke up in 1995; being based in Seattle, was Grunge a factor in that decision?
KV: Grunge was a factor to everybody. Much different from what I perceive to be over here in Europe, in America, it’s so trendy, so suddenly, if you’re out of fashion; you’re done. So yeah, it changed the industry. I think in a lot of ways, Grunge needed to happen, because it took the L.A. hair metal, over-produced, over-corporate shit that was going on. Suddenly, your video become more important, and in Metal Church, we were never a ‘pretty’ band – obviously - so we weren’t part of it. One of the moments that was out of our control, we did a photo session and they tried to make us look glam, and it was just horrific; hairspray, and a little bit of make-up. We told our manager at the time; “DO NOT use these pictures”, but of course it ended up in Circus magazine. And we had to live with things like that, so when Grunge happened, it took it back to reality a little bit, but it killed metal bands.
Did that contribute to your decision to leave back in 1993 Mike?
MH: Well of course, that was part of it, but it was so complex it wasn’t any one thing. The guys in the band were having problems, our drummer [Kirk Arrington] was having problems with diabetes, and things like that. But basically, it was having no control over your destiny, and feeling like; “This is not mm; this is not what I got into a band to be”. I really remember vividly leaving Metal Church and not wanting to listen to music at all – any kind of music. I was just like; “This is a fucked up business”. I’ve been asked; “Why didn’t you do other metal stuff?” It’s because Metal Church was the band that I loved and wanted to be in - I didn’t want to be in another band. I loved Metal Church, and they were ruining Metal Church for me.
Does it feel good to be back?
MH: Of course, it feels great to be back. If it didn’t feel great, I would not be back.
KV: I wouldn’t be doing it either, because like he said, there was no fourth singer for metal church, it was like; “That’s it, I’m done”.
The band’s original line-up did reform for one album in 1999.
KV: ‘Masterpiece’, which I like to call ‘Disasterpiece’. The whole thing was a great idea, but when we tried to put together it just didn’t work. We got forced into doing some stuff and I swear, when we payed Waken with [vocalist] David Wayne, the whole thing fell apart with having all the original members. They literally forced us into doing that, and I was telling the management, and record company; “Look, this is a bad, bad idea”, and they said; “Oh no, you’ll be fine, it’ll be fine”. We played, and we SUCKED, I mean, it was horrible, and then afterwards everybody was like; “What happened?!”, and I was just like; “I’m going to fucking kill you guys” – the management and record companies. I was like; “Fuck YOU. I told you, and I warned you that this is bad”.
Why did the reunion fail?
KV: Well, David Wayne couldn’t sing anymore, he was fucked up on drugs; prescription drugs, because that’s ‘different’. It was fun to play with John Marshall, but Kirk couldn’t do it because of his health, and that’s when I had to cut ties with Kirk. He didn’t play, and he barely played on the record, and it took forever to get that done. It just didn’t work. It was a horrible feeling. We did a tour and it was awful. We’re still recovering from that now.
But back to the present day, and ‘XI’ has certainly turned things around.
KV: Well that’s what happens when I’m left alone, and I can work with people that can do it. Literally, ‘Masterpiece’, that era was when I decided I am never, never doing that again.
MH: That’s why things are so beautiful today, because we have Rat Pack Records behind us, with Joe O’Brien and his team, and they ask us; “Can we do this, can we do this?”
Was it disappointing having to change drummers just prior to the tour starting?
KV: Well, we did a tour with Jeff [Plate], and it was great, and yeah, it’s always sad to see somebody go, but the way things left with Jeff were fine. It was completely amicable; we’re not kids anymore, and he needed a change. And Stet [Howland] is great.
MH: And he’s fitting in perfectly with us. Kurdt and I have this philosophy now that we’re older and wiser; we just like to go with the flow, and if people aren’t happy, then you let the people go. That’s fine; we’ll find somebody that is going to be happy with the situation.
Are Metal Church responsible for one of the worst album covers of all time?
KV: Metal Church wasn’t responsible.
MH: The big fat lady? Our manager who ripped us off and took the publishing of that record and still has it to this day, they were the ones who said; “Oh, we’ve got this guy, he’s going to make this record cover”, and they presented it to us and I said; “I don’t like that at all”.
KV: “Well, you have to!”
MH: “Well, we put this money into this”, and I’m like; “I don’t care! I don’t want it”, but they done it anyway.
Do you look back on it with a bit of a sense of humour now?
KV: I don’t look at it with a sense of humour. I don’t think that’s funny. It’s so bad. I look at everything from ‘Blessing In Disguise’ and ‘Human Factor’ to ‘Hanging In The Balance’, and all those covers, and those aren’t album covers. That was just people in the record company marginalising the band, and not listening.
MH: But I also have to say, the band members have to take a little bit of fault for things also; it’s not always just about the outside forces. You have to be a united front as a band, with decision and a vision, and unfortunately Kurdt and I not being in the band together, when the music came to the band to start recording, he wasn’t allowed a vote in any of the other things beyond writing. So I would be in the band with the other four guys who - great guys, I loved them and they were great musicians, but we weren’t all on the same page. They would be more like; “Well, they’re management, and they should know better than us”, and I’d be like; “No!”, and so it would be this disagreement of what’s right and wrong, because they were afraid. We were too young to stand up for our own principles and put our foot down.
It sounds like things have truly come full circle for you.
MH: We know what we want, and we do what we want. It’s like the perfect storm.
KV: And it’s great to be able to still be doing this, in any capacity. It’s pretty amazing.
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Metal Church's 'XI' is available now, here.