kev bower hell
Interview by: Marcus Jervis
Date: April 2011
Photos by: HELL / Nuclear Blast
It might have come some 25 years later than expected, but the debut album is finally ready – that has to feel pretty good?
Absolutely. It really has been a very, very long time coming and on top of the two-decade hiatus, it's also taken us almost three years of part-time work to put it all together, largely due to Andy's schedules and work commitments, but yes – it's done, and it feels extraordinary.
To be 100% honest, it won't feel totally real until we have actual, tangible, physical copies of the album in our hands – it's all still computer files of audio and artwork right now, but it's like a huge boulder rolling down the side of a hill, getting faster and faster by the day. We were rehearsing at the studio last week – and all of a sudden, there we are up on the studio big-screen TV (Scuzz channel), with our video sandwiched between Metallica, Machine Head and Korn. Life doesn't get much freakier than that, and it's just one of the things which has happened recently which have contributed to the whole 'beyond our wildest dreams' scenario.
The most amazing thing has been the extraordinary reaction from the European media. We knew it was good, but for this to be hailed as the best metal album for 25 years is something else. Looking back, I think that the real 'eyes-wide-open' moment for me came around a year ago when we'd just about finished tracking the album and Andy was working on the preliminary mix. In my day job I run a business restoring old houses and Andy's studio is on a 300-year-old farm, and this particular week I was actually there installing a new bathroom upstairs. I remember Andy coming up to this room with a CDR in his hand and a strange look on his face, and he said "Kev, this is brilliant. It is absolutely world-class". Now something like that, coming from a producer with over 100 albums to his credit, really meant something, and the possibilities started to roll over in my head…
Thinking back to the eighties, the story of Hell is colourful to say the least. Did you ever think the opportunity to release a full-length had gone forever?
Well, yes – I had had been totally out of the whole music business for two decades, and after that length of time, the whole HELL thing was well and truly rooted in history, it was like the treasure chest had been locked and buried forever. I had just resigned myself to the fact that the collapse of Mausoleum and the tragic death of Dave Halliday signified the end of an era in my life, and I did what we all do in such circumstances – I moved on without looking backwards. I have always believed, though, that our whole lives are pre-ordained and mapped out for us way in advance, and the unbelievable series of events which have happened as this whole thing has come together make a story which you could not possibly make up. It's almost been like watching hundreds of jigsaw pieces on your table, all slowly moving themselves into the correct position at the right time to make up the big picture, and I have a very hard time believing that there isn't some external influence making all this happen.
The Andy Sneap connection has been well documented and his love of HELL stretches back a long way – learning guitar from Dave Halliday for one thing, but were you in touch with him at all prior to the idea of doing the album or did it come as a complete shock?
No, I hadn't seen Andy for around 18 years. During that time, I went through a messy divorce which resulted in my losing contact with my son Tom for almost 5 years. Once we were reunited, he started playing me all these albums by bands like Exodus, Nevermore and so on, and I saw that it was Andy who had produced these – I didn't even know he had gone onto become a producer because I was so far removed from the music scene. I told Tom about Andy the young Hellfan kid on the front row of our shows and of course he didn't believe me, so he contacted Andy on a forum who told him it was all true, and he was so pleased to have found me again.
We met up for a few beers, and within two hours of this first contact, he had put a guitar back in my hand. We thought it would be cool and fun to re-record a few of the old songs properly, just for ourselves you understand – and maybe press up a few CDR's for friends and family. But the whole thing snowballed into something much, much bigger, the first stage of which was that instead of doing two or three songs, we did ten, and the initial seeds of a whole album started to grow.
I also got really interested in things like the new keyboard and digital sampling technology which amazed me after a two-decade gap, so I started spending time putting together stuff like the orchestral and choral Deathsquad album intro, along with all the soundscapes and other off-the-wall stuff you've heard on the album. So yes- it did come as a shock, but the best shock I ever had...
Speaking of Dave Halliday, we sadly lost him to suicide in 1987. He was clearly a massive personality and left a huge void. It was always going to be a big gap to fill but David Bower seems to have done an incredible job. His vocals are stunning. How did that come about?
In England we have a phrase – 'Dave Halliday's shoes are big ones to fill' – but David Bower has always said that when Dave Halliday died, he took his shoes with him, and you're right, he has done an incredible job.
The way it all came about was that to start with, you're probably aware that Martin Walkyier (from Sabbat) recorded all the vocals for the album in its entirety, but as he'll freely admit himself - he really, really struggled with a lot of it, simply because his style just didn't mesh particularly well with a substantial proportion of the HELL material which required high-pitched, defined melody, along with the kind of light and shade which Martin just doesn't do.
The other issue was that his sound and style are both so individual, and the singer's voice is the instantly-recognisable sonic signature of any band – like as soon as Bruce Dickinson starts to sing, you just know it's Iron Maiden even if it's a new song you're not familiar with, you know? So, after a great deal of work, we ended up with an album which no-one was really 100% happy with, and which sounded more like an unreleased Sabbat set than a HELL album. We therefore decided amongst all of us that it wasn't to be – and we're all adult enough to realise that sometimes you try stuff and it just doesn't work out.
David first became involved when I invited him along to do a small voiceover narrative – the 'plague and impending conflagration are signs from God' part in the middle of Plague and Fyre in fact. In between takes, he just started casually singing along with the track, and Andy (wearing his 'producer's hat') immediately realised there was something special going on. Although I've seen David doing lots of songs in the theatre in a totally clean, straightforward theatrical-tenor style, I had no idea he could sing like that, honestly, and once I'd heard him do a try-out on some other tracks and agreed that it was worth pursuing further, it was then just a question of him working alone with Andy to capture what you'll hear on the album.
The other killer thing about David is that he's exactly the lunatic-in-the-straitjacket frontman this band needed. He has exactly the same madness in his voice and his persona, and we've rigged him up with a headset mic which means that live, he can really focus on doing wacky stuff without constantly being tied to a hand-held mic and stand.
Going back to my comment about stuff just falling into place, Andy had spent ages trying to find a singer who could come somewhere close to replicating Dave Halliday's voice and had practically given up, and all the time my own brother was the right guy without any of us knowing it.
Andy is massively in demand as one of metal's top producers. Not only do you get to work with him on the album, but it's also being released on Nuclear Blast, one of the top metal labels anywhere in the world. You must be pleased with how everything is coming together finally?
'Pleased' is probably the understatement of the year. Andy's also my best friend – in fact, all five of us are really close and we just gel as good friends, and we'd be doing this just for fun even if the signing and everything else had never happened, but yeah – you're right, it's great. The deal with NB came quite late in the day – we already had offers on the table from four other labels including Metal Blade and Century Media, but NB were always Andy's first choice – he had worked with them and their bands for over 10 years, and they were always going to be front-runners.
Within the first week, we knew we had made the right label choice, their promotion and distribution capabilities are superlative, but the most significant thing is that they really 'get' what HELL are all about, and they understood exactly what we wanted to achieve with this release. They have also hooked us up with top-notch management and booking agency companies, and although this stuff doesn't have much to do with the actual music, it's critically important because in the final analysis, there's no point in a band producing a killer album if no-one ever gets to know about it. I know that we English always make jokes about ruthless German efficiency, but it's absolutely true – the whole NB organisation runs like a smooth, silent, well-oiled Mercedes-Benz V12. We're really happy with the way they have supported us, and we're pretty sure that the relationship is going to be a very long one.
To focus specifically on the album now, it is a simply stunning piece of work. Did you have any preconceptions before you started the recording process or were you quite flexible and open-minded?
That's very kind of you to say that – thank you very much. One of the main reasons why Andy and I are so close is that we think almost exactly alike – and throughout the whole recording process, it was unbelievable how many times we would both come up with exactly the same idea at exactly the same time. We also share the same vision and I think it's fair to say that both of us could always hear the complete, finished result in our heads two years before it was finally all done – so yes, we knew exactly how we wanted it to sound, and we just worked at until it sounded like the original idea in our heads.
We both knew, for example, that the album was going to run non-stop with no track gap silences in between the songs – stuff like that. It maybe sounds like a strange thing to say – but there's actually a big part of me which is really happy that it's taken 25 years to appear, and the reason for that is best summed up by stuff like the intro to Plague and Fyre with the horse-drawn body cart clattering across the cobblestones, the people vomiting and moaning, the church bells, the babies crying, the ethereal, moving keyboard pads – all that stuff was in my head 25 years ago, but the technology didn't exist at the time for me to do it, and was so, so cool to be able to finally sit down in front of a digital workstation and put something together which was essentially limitless. Of course, new ideas came up all the time, especially when Andy became more involved as a player rather than just as a producer, and with regard to some of the guitar runs, fills and other bits of ear-candy he's incorporated.
One of the many things that impresses on Human Remains is just how fresh and relevant the songs sound, despite being originally written so long ago? Were you aware – either then or now – of how timeless the songs were?
Again, thanks for that, it really means a lot to us, and it's being said by virtually everyone who has heard it. That certainly has to say something about how advanced the band was for its time, but I think more significantly, it represents a return to good, old-fashioned songwriting which I think is being lost by many of today's younger metal bands who are instead just focusing on blastbeats, riffs, aggression and speed, rather than melody, depth or emotional involvement. To me, the acid test of a proper song is always– 'can you sit down and play it with an acoustic guitar?' and in the case of most HELL songs, the answer is 'Yes'. If you look back of the history of music, that's almost always been the case, so a classic song like Big Yellow Taxi will always sound great, irrespective of whether it's being performed by Joni Mitchell on a 12-string acoustic, or whether it's a thrash metal band doing a 300km/hour version of it. The basic song will always shine through, and that was always really important to us and will continue to be with the new stuff I'm writing for the second album.
Going back to what I was saying in the previous answer about the timescale gap perhaps being the best thing to have happened – it's interesting to reflect on the fact that Human Remains is exactly the album HELL would have produced back in 1983 if things had worked out for us, and that the album would have pre-dated Master of Puppets by three years. Would the world have been ready for that back then? Maybe not – so again, it's maybe a good thing that we have had to endure this long wait.
Much of the album is very overblown, dramatic and epic - HELL was without doubt one of the first bands to be approaching metal in such a way. Is there any sense that you were perhaps too far ahead of your time?
I think I already touched on that in the previous answer, but to expand a little more – any form of art (painting, film, music or whatever) has the ability to provoke some emotional response – it can make you sad or happy, it can take you back to a special personal place in time, or introduce a certain set of feelings within you, and that's what we always tried to create with our music and our lyrics, we really wanted to make people think about stuff, and I knew we had succeeded when I first lay down in complete darkness and listened to the album back-to-back all the way through on headphones for the first time, when Andy had put the first basic mix together. I felt exhausted at the end of it, and lots of people have said that you really feel as though you have been on a journey by the time it ends. Ahead of our time? Well, we would rather let others judge that, but it's certainly a pretty immense and thought-provoking slab of metal.
That said, some of the tracks are a lot more instantly hook-driven (The Quest for example). Is it important to have that diversity?
Yes, you're absolutely right about that as well. The most important thing which has always set HELL apart is quite simply that there is no one single basic element in what we do, it's got more than one dimension and it works for different people in different ways. Every song has its own story, its own distinct personality, its own visual portrayal and its own soundscape map, and although there's a definite recognizable HELL 'house style', there are real differences and multiple levels of light, shade, depth and texture in what we do - musically, lyrically and visually, and I think it's precisely this 'just what is going to happen next?' factor which has endeared people to us.
When The Quest first appeared, we were very unsure about it because it was a simple, foot-on-the-monitors, heads-down piece of boogie which stood out from almost everything else we did in terms of its simplicity – but it went onto become one of only three HELL songs which remained in our live set from the first gig to the very last. It just proves that variety is the spice of life.
Many of the lyrical ideas appear openly satanic and critical of organised religion. Are those beliefs as real and as important to you now as they appeared to be back then?
One important thing about doing this is that intelligent listeners will instantly spot a fake – so yes, we mean what we said then and we still do now. I have no problem with organised religion at all, it's an important part of many people's lives and it brings great joy and comfort to many who follow it – but what I do have a problem with is organisations like the Catholic Church setting themselves up as guardians of goodness and charity, and then trying to cover up the fact that some of its representatives have been sodomising innocent little children. It's sick. It's also sick how the more fanatical elements of various faiths over time have been the cause of more carnage, terror, death and destruction than any other factor throughout history. It's not religion that's the problem – it's some of the people who follow it.
Your website (www.hell-metal.com) mentions you will playing an album launch show in Nottingham during May. Will there be more live shows and what can we expect?
Yes, we thought it would be cool to go back to where it all started, so we've organised a one-off local gig at a little club on 20 May to celebrate the album launch, but also to give us a chance to hook up again with the many local fans who supported us back then. There will be a lot of familiar faces in that audience for sure, and it's going to be a great night for both them and for us. After that, we hit the festival circuit with shows at Rockstad Falun in Sweden, TUSKA in Finland, plus three METALFEST open-air gigs in Germany, Switzerland and Austria – and then we're likely to drop onto a more extended tour sometime later in the year. We're all loving playing again, and as for the live shows – well, for the time being we don't have Rammstein's money or technical support, but the shows will be as good as we can make them. We're really looking forward to it, and I have a feeling that once the initial nerves wear off, we'll have a riot…
Are there any final words / messages you'd like to give to HELL fans, or maybe to those who don't know the band yet?
To all the people who have supported the band and patiently waited for this release – thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. You guys are the main reason why we do what we do, and we genuinely hope that you will be blown away when you hear what we've created. We're very, very proud of it.
To the newer fans who don't yet know us – take a chance on this. Someone has already said "If you only buy one metal album this years – make sure it's this one". We'll never be all things to all people, but we're real and we're true to the bone. Let Battle Commence!!