HAIL OF BULLETS (Martin van Drunen) INTERVIEW
Three years ago, legendary frontman Martin van Drunen (of both Pestilence and Asphyx fame) unleashed his most recent creative demons under the war-inspired moniker Hail Of Bullets. The product of that attempt took the music world by total surprise and created a massive buzz. Beginner’s luck? Even if you are naive enough to believe that this could even be the case, the band’s second full length opus “On Divine Winds” is here to prove you wrong! In the interview that follows, Martin talks about all things Hail Of Bullets, his belief about what constitutes good quality Death Metal and his future as the frontman of both this band and of the legendary outfit Asphyx.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
• Good evening Martin, this is Yiannis Stefanis. Are you ready to do this interview?
Martin: Certainly – fire away!
• Martin, it is a great pleasure to be doing this interview with you as I have been a massive fan of your work since the early days of Pestilence. I am, most of all, quite happy to see how you continue to blow our minds away today through your participation in Hail Of Bullets, a band whose second album “On Divine Winds” is, so far, one of the highlights of 2010 for me…I really don’t know what more to say here…I am lost for words, really!
Martin: Well, thank you very much Yiannis – you leave me speechless here! Thank you very much for all your compliments and your kind words, all of which are truly appreciated! Thank you.
• Well, I am not the only person to say such things about your new album, by the way. Most of the people that I talk to and whose reviews I read on the net are genuinely excited about “On Divine Winds”.
Martin: We are very happy, of course, that the feedback that we get is very positive. Basically, we, as old school Death Metal fans, we just do what we like to do and what we think that is good and we are hoping that other people will appreciate our work along the way. Apparently, we get good feedback and we are really happy about that! We are pleased about the fact that all the hard work and the effort that we put into this band is paying off. I am not referring to sales here, as I have no idea about that stuff, but when it comes to reviews, the result is fantastic on an international level. Usually there always seems to be a difference between certain kinds of press…
• In what way?
Martin: Well, the Germans and the Finns were a lot more supportive towards the first Hail Of Bullets album than the UK, for instance, and the Americans are a different case altogether. With regards this new album, everybody seems to be on the same level, they appreciate what we did and gave us all kinds of compliments!
• One thing that I really enjoy about Hail of Bullets in general, and “On Divine Winds” in specific, is that it is capable of satisfying both old school Death Metal fans such as myself and young kids alike. What you have achieved here is to make old school Death Metal sound fresh again! The end result is simple, powerful and very, very exciting indeed!
Martin: Again, Yiannis, I am lost for words here…wow…all these compliments are pretty overwhelming! Basically it may all have to do with the fact that we all are really happy to be in this band – a band consisting of guys that have been in this line of business for a long time. Everyone had a different view on how they work and also on the kind of Death Metal that they listen to. Especially the co-operation between me and Ed (Warby: Drums) is wonderful. He is more or less the mastermind when it comes to the musical aspect of Hail Of Bullets, whereas I am the contributor of lyrics. We try to communicate as well as we can and if there is any lack of clarity between us, we clear the atmosphere as soon as we can by talking everything out. It is amazing – fantastic to work with him! This is much more than a bunch of guys going into a studio in order to do another album – there are so many things that happened along the way and which helped create this one and again; it’s really fantastic to be able to hear all those kind words from you (laughs).
• With all the bands that you have been involved in throughout the years, mainly Pestilence, Asphyx and Bolt Thrower, you have been creating good quality music for more than twenty years now. Why is it that only now people start to understand what it is that you guys are all about, you think?
Martin: The only answer that I really have to give on that is that, personally, I was quite fed up with Metal for some time, because there was a long period in extreme music where all that mattered was being as fast and as technical as possible. Many people in bands were trying to feed their egos by trying to show how technical they can play their guitar, but that is not a fundamental value when playing Heavy Metal or Death Metal music, in my opinion. If you go back into the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal era, you would find so many good bands with such great material on offer. These bands really knew how to create good songs – songs that you would play once on your turn table and which will stick in your mind for days and weeks to come. I think that with old school Death Metal in the very beginning, this was also the case; it may have been very brutal, but it was based on a similar approach. Then, all of a sudden, we experienced this mix between technical and Grind stuff and then, all of a sudden, there were no apparent song structures anymore! Then, for me, things started to get very boring! I mean, if I really want to listen to a very good guitar player doing his own thing, then I will go and buy a ticket to see John McLaughlin or something, or get a CD by a great blues guitar player such as Rory Gallagher, you know what I mean? And even these guys do not trip on their guitars as much as some of these new Death Metal guitarists do! I think that maybe that’s it: we just really like to listen and play songs that are catchy in a sense and whose lyrics people can sing during our shows – something that you see all the time happening! We have crowds whose age ranges from fifteen to forty years old, and that is the best thing that can happen to a band because you need to have a future, even if you are as old as we are (laughs)! So, I think that it’s that and of course the fact that we’ve found a perfect medium between Death and Heavy Metal. My voice is quite brutal, but you can find some proper Heavy Metal melodies in most of our riffs.
• When I listen to the music you create with Hail Of Bullets, one of the first bands that spring to mind is Bolt Thrower – especially as you were their lead singer for a certain period of time. The principal that the two bands share is the same: simple riffs, simple melodies and plenty of groove! You don’t have to put a two thousand different notes in a song to make it sound exciting! Having said that, it is not like you have used one specific formula in order to make “On Divine Winds”; there is so much variety in this album for all to enjoy!
Martin: Yes, and that is something that we really focused on doing, otherwise things would be pretty boring! Honestly, when I first heard the final mix, and I was really able to go home and really listen to it properly, I just called Ed straight afterwards and told him “My God, even listening to it myself and trying to be objective, as an outside listener, it still sounded like the ultimate trip!”. It takes you on a journey from the first song to the very end, and you don’t even have to take drugs to get there! It was a friend of mine who really has a very good stereo at his place who played it properly for me and it was there that I heard all those things that Ed put in this album. I do have a good stereo at home, of course, but this buddy of mine has the ultimate piece of equipment and also is lucky enough to turn things really loud as his neighbours don’t really care (laughs).
• Good neighbours are difficult to find (I laugh).
Martin: (laughs) True, but even he has to turn the music down after ten as people do have to go to work the next day (laughs). That’s when I realised that this album is really not boring at all… there’s all kinds of things added to it which makes me like this album even more than the first one (“…Of Frost And War”). Our first album was rawer, this one is…I am not going to say more polished, but…
• To me it sounds like the logical continuation from “…Of Frost And War”.
Martin: Yeah, it’s like an old bottle of wine. When the grape ripens, the wine is so much better.
• A very fitting comparison indeed as I was enjoying a good glass of Georgian wine prior to calling you tonight, and I can tell you: it works really well, wine and Hail Of Bullets music, that is!
Martin: (laughs) I normally prefer a good beer to be honest, but I can also enjoy a good glass of wine. I have a French friend who visited me a while ago and they have a really good understanding when it comes to wine. I do occasionally enjoy a glass of wine (laughs).
• Good man! The sound you created for “On Divine Winds” is very organic and breathes the very sentiment that each song wishes to convey. Did it require a lot of effort, the process of achieving this sound, that is?
Martin: The different thing about the recordings for this album is that we did not go to any one studio in particular. Ed slowly started building up studio equipment and all the stuff that you need in order to record an album like this at his own place, so our guitar players went to his place. The good thing was that they could take all the time in the world in order to work on different ideas, find their sound and adjust it to what we wanted. This time round they had more time to do such a thing. It’s not only important to create a good studio album for us, but also to create such a sound that can be successfully re-created in a live environment. So yes, they were quire relaxed when working on the album. If there was a day when things were not working according to plan, they were like “Ok, let’s do it another day” – it was not like in cases when you have a deadline to meet as another band has to use the studio that you are using afterwards. We visited the studio as many times as we saw fit, till everything was ready and I could say to them “Ok, your job is done, now its time for me to do mine”. I went to record in another studio, the place where we usually record our stuff which is called “Excess Studios”. It only took me a couple of days to finish my stuff but even that was better than before! I did have some pressure on my shoulders, but when doing my vocals, the whole communication with Ed was so great – that helped me a lot. We tried all sorts of different things and I was patient, saying to him “here I am, let’s try all those things that you want me to do”. That was indeed really cool!
• With bands like Asphyx and Pestilence, one could pretty much understand which member pushes each song forward, that being either the guitar or vocals in each individual case. With Hail Of Bullets, this is not always very clear. There are quite a few songs that you have created thus far in your career, like “Full, Scale War”, where I cannot really say whether the founding theme was a guitar riff or a vocal melody – you know what I mean?
Martin: The thing is that, the way I work with vocals and I write the lyrics, is that I need to have the music ready, at least the rough mix. If I know that these are the riffs and that these are the themes that I will have to sing on, then I can work with them. I always work with songs that are almost done. When I write my words, I want to be able to speak them all out. I am not like other singers who write their stuff down on paper before the songs are ready and then they find themselves trying to fit them in. It is really hard to do that and I don’t like that, as you often have to skip things or change certain lines that you wrote. I don’t like working like that. With Hail Of Bullets, it’s sometimes Ed who leads me by saying “when I wrote this song, I had that and that in mind with regards vocal parts” and then things are starting to fall into place. As a singer, I am always thinking in rhythmical terms; I have to have a rhythm in my head in order to work – without that, I just don’t like working anyway (laughs). But because Ed is such a marvellous drummer, he sometimes has a different interpretation of my lyrics and vocals and then I might come with something that he would not necessarily have expected me to. He would often say to me “how the hell did you come up with that” and I would see him grinning, but when sitting at the mixing board would say “sh*t, that does sound great”! Getting back to the whole communication between us and how we work in the studio: I would then be curious about what it is that he had in mind about certain things, try out his suggestions, only to see that the end result was better than the original. That is the way that we work with regards my vocals, yeah!
• Without wanting to steal any glory from any of the members of this band, I strongly believe that if either you or Ed were not involved in this project, the end result would not have sounded as impressive as it does. You have what we call ‘trademark vocals’, one of the most recognisable voices in Metal and with regards the things that are happening in the album drums wise…? Oh my God! Simple stuff, but try to play them!
Martin: That’s Eddy for you! He is a ‘Class A’ drummer. I think that when it comes to Metal drummers, he is one of the best in the world! His service in the band is undeniable, being the main ‘rhythm engine’ and all! He plays very simple stuff but, as you say, it sounds simple but it’s not really. Ed despises triggers in drums, so in order to achieve what others have to do by relying on technology, he has to punch his sh*t really hard. If you are on stage and have this little fellow behind you…sometimes when he feels great during a show and the sound is good and all, he adds things in between parts that are not on the album, so we all end up sometime thinking “what the hell is he doing now” (laughs). Then, when we turn and look at him he will be smiling at us whereas we will go “you little b*stard” (laughs). This is the kind of fun that we get out of this band and it is strange as we are all guys in our forties, but when we play this sh*t, we feel like being eighteen again, you know? Behind all the good work that we do and the professional approach that we follow there is that fun factor that’s involved – if we didn’t have that, we would not be doing this thing! I have to admit, Ed is something else. With this band, we gave him a lot of freedom in doing things that he always wanted to do with a Death Metal band and…
• …he takes full advantage of it by the sounds of it!
Martin: First he takes full advantage of it, secondly there is no way for anyone to deny that the things he does are really good. Why not cherish such a gift and use it as a band? Stephan (Gebedi: guitars) has also contributed some great stuff; just check out his work in “Kamikaze” or “Full Scale War” where Paul (Baayens: guitars) performs his magic, so it’s not just Ed. I mean Ok, seventy to seventy five per cent of the music on offer is his.
• Martin, we have to mention here “Tokyo Napalm Holocaust” as a highlight of this album, a song that scared the living sh*t out of me when I first listened to it! It really creates an eerie feeling, much fitting to the lyrical concept on offer.
Martin: Yep. When I first heard the main rough riff I knew the title of the song already, I read a bit about the subject before I started working on my lyrics and then I heard this apocalyptic riff coming up and I knew its worth and I felt like I saw this inferno unfolding in front of me! I told the guys, even before the song was finished, that “this is going to be it” and they all agreed! We are going to be playing that one live for sure because…we really want to! (laughs).
• Martin, I personally love reading history and I am working on a degree as we speak, so the themes you choose for your albums are quite appealing to me, however, what about the majority of your fans? How important is it for you guys to have fans that understand and relate to your lyrics?
Martin: It is something that really happens actually and not something that I expected to be the case. Following the release of our first album, we did shows both in Europe and in America like the Maryland Deathfest, and in some cases when I was in the crowd or after a show, discussions between me and the fans would start on the subjects mentioned in our songs. In Finland, I remember sitting next to a guy from Lithuania, a guy from Finland and a guy from America and there was this whole discussion going on between four different nationalities about war experiences related to ancestors or victims of war and everything. Also, when we play live, there are many young kids who just stand there in the front row and know all the damn lyrics by heart – every single word! When I saw that happening, when we first started playing shows, I was thinking to myself “Oh sh*t, this is exactly the same sh*t that I did when I would go to concerts by Venom, or Motorhead”, you know? I do recognise it and it is very flattering and what I also listen from a lot of people is that they consider what we do as something with an educational value in it and that is great, you know? It’s not that I expected it to happen but it did and now we sometimes have whole discussions about the themes on offer, people complementing me or even sometimes sending me books or coming to shows with antiques from the war – there’s all kind of stuff that happens! It’s fantastic, I really enjoy it and that gives me both pleasure and an incentive to work on a follow up to that.
• Now that I heard about all that stuff, I am officially jealous! You have access to so much good stuff, that’s great! So, do you really see Hail Of Bullets as an outfit that will forever be associated with the concept of war in lyrical terms?
Martin: Yes, I guess so. I didn’t expect to work for such a concept on this one, but it happened and I already have some ideas for the next album. I am already trying to collect all the stuff and information that I will need for this one in order to prepare my lyrics. The war concept really fits well with the band. The songs, the kind of music that we make and the overall atmosphere that we create is such that we would first be stupid to not continue working on that and, second, what else should we be writing about? Gore, zombies or Satan? This has already been done and to a great extent by many bands. We could follow a totally different approach to our lyrics but still have it related to war; we don’t have to get stuck with WWII. I am not going to take on WWI as this is basically the territory of Bolt Thrower, and believe me when I say that they do things fantastically well on their own. There are so many topics we can use like Attila the Hun or the Roman Empire…so many different things! There are so many things going or that went on in the past, such a variety of topics that you can pick up as a band.
• That makes me so happy – you make me visualise future concepts! I haven’t even finished digesting “On Divine Winds” and you feed my appetite again – thank you!
Martin: (laughs) You’re welcome!
• I was looking on both your official website and your page in MySpace, both of which are really well done by the way, and found out that you have already announced a few gigs already, most of which are taking place in Holland and Germany. That makes sense, as the core of your fans are stationed there, but you know what I have been dying to hear, right? Are you guys coming to the UK any time soon?
Martin: Well, the things is that we have been to London on one occasion, like a small show, but the thing with the UK is that it is a really hard thing to do, especially when you are a band that is based on the continent. The circumstances when you play in the UK are totally different, it is a different planet altogether and that is really sad. I feel sorry sometimes for the small UK bands because it is difficult for them to get any chance to play live, but over here, there is always a chance to feature as a support band on a tour. We really hope that we play in the UK soon and we might be doing something; there is something in the pipeline already, but I cannot name it. We are now booking all the shows for next year and there are many shows that are not yet mentioned on our MySpace page as we are not allowed to advertise them just yet. So, we are still booking slots and if something comes from the UK, which we hope so, we will take it. We had a great time playing in London for sure.
• And we would like to see you guys playing here again as there are quite a few people here buzzing about the new album.
Martin: Well, then please write to agents and promoters in the UK and ask them to arrange something for us (laughs).
• If only things were that easy Martin…I need to ask: what is the status with regards the other projects that you are involved in, mainly Asphyx? Do you treat Hail Of Bullets as our absolute priority or are both bands equally important to you?
Martin: Both bands are equally important and both are great fun to be part of and to be doing. Both are also successful, although Asphyx are slightly more successful in Germany as they have a certain cult status. With Asphyx, we release a new DVD (note: the name is “Live Death Doom”) whose sales have so far gone really well and we are already working on new material already, so for me life as a musician never ends! One album is only out for a few weeks and another one is already in the making!
• That’s great for those of us who are closely following your career as we’re always on the lookout for things that carry your name! Somehow, you always manage to bring something very interesting and much different to this scene with every band that you participate in, something that is really difficult to achieve for most people!
Martin: Thank you very much for saying that!
• Martin, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.
Martin: Me too, as my ears are still buzzing from all those compliments that you made!
• All of which are well and truly deserved! I hope that the album scores really high around the world and also to see you here in the UK soon!
Martin: Thank you very much.
On Sunday 28 July 2019, David Randall celebrated his 600th show. “Assume The Position” started in June 2007 on UK City Radio before transferring a year later to Get Ready to ROCK! Radio. The show includes tracks played on the first show plus Upton Blues Festival highlights, new music and the regular features “Live Legends” and “Anniversary Rock” which this week celebrates the Island Records label 60th anniversary.
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