Throughout my relatively lengthy time as a music journalist I have often had to communicate online with artists who, for various reasons, I could not meet in person.
I can say that Mark “The Shark” Shelton is one of the few musicians that I regret most not having spoken to face to face. Having fairly recently released a truly impressive album in “Mysterium”, the Kansas-born guitar legend is currently on the road to help its promotion but he still managed to find the time to provide some truly interesting answers to my humble questions.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
Mark “The Shark” Shelton photo by Marco Manzi
- Hi, Mark. First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to answer this questionnaire. I hear and read many good things happening to you and the band lately and, being a long term fan, I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am for that.
Shark: Thank you so much. It is an honour to do this interview with you and yes I am very happy also about how things are going for me and the Road right now. Even though it took 35 years to get here it has all been worth it my friend. I would not want to change a thing at this point.
- I believe that my e-mail requesting an interview with you found you at a Porto hotel a day after performing a set at the SWR Barroselas Metalfest. Previous to that, the band played in a handful of cool festivals, culminating in the “Crystal Logic” set at Wichita – the place where Manilla Road were formed. I cannot tell you how much I would have loved to be part of the crowd at Wichita. How would you describe the overall experience of this and all the other shows you have performed at thus far?
Shark: Yes you are correct. I was in Porto, Portugal at the time you caught up to me last time. It was right after the SWR festival and we had a great time there. The audience was a little worn out by the time we got on the stage but after a few songs they all livened up and the show was a great success. We then went to Madrid, Spain and headlined the Pounding Metal Festival and that was a huge success for us. Vicious Rumours played just before us and Jeff and his crew really lit it up. Made it really hard for us to follow them because they totally blew the audience away. But we knew what we had to do and so we put a torch to it ourselves. The audience was fantastic and was more than ready for Manilla Road. It was nuts man. They knew all the songs and sang so loud with us that we could hear them really well even over the loudness of the band. Man, I love nights like that. It was great and I can’t say enough about the crews and promoters for both festivals. Very professional and a complete joy to work with. Before that we had headlined the Metal Assault festival in Germany and that was an incredible show as well with the audience totally into the event and MR. I’m just fascinated with how well all of these shows have gone for us. Then there was the show in Wichita, Kansas that you spoke of. Now this was a really special show also for us because it was in our home town which we only play in maybe once a year at the most usually. Also we had Rick Fisher playing all of the “Crystal Logic “album with us (like at the Metal Assault) but also playing several other songs like Flaming Metal Systems, Queen of the Black Coast and Cage Of Mirrors. Then Randy Thrasher Foxe hit the stage with us and played 3 songs – The Ninth Wave, Dig Me No Grave and Haunted Palace. It was so cool to have both Rick and Randy playing with us again. It’s sort of funny because when we were playing with Rick it really still sounded a lot like the early 80’s and the Road of old. And then when Randy came on with us it was the same thing. All of a sudden we sounded like the Road did in the mid-80’s and both drummers really did a great job and showed everyone that they still have what it takes. Magikal is the best term to use to describe it all. I am so pleased that we all could get together like that and still pull off a great show even though we had not played together for so many years. I was really impressed with both of them. So far all of the shows that we have done have been great and now I am sitting in my hotel room in Baltimore, Maryland where we are about to play at the Maryland Deathfest. So I am looking forward to another great show this Sunday at the Deathfest and hopefully the status quo will not change and it will be yet another fantastic gig for the Road. Then it’s a few days work in Midgard Sound Labs (my studio) with Neudi tracking drums for the next Manilla Road album and then a slew of more shows in Las Vegas Nevada, Austin Texas, Sweden Rock Festival, a show in Germany outside of Hamburg and then the Hellfest in France. Later on in the year we will be going back to Canada and then to Germany and Belgium again and then a show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. It’s been a busy year and is going to get even busier with all the touring that we are doing. But I love it all to death and am having the time of my life right now. It’s always been my dream to travel the world playing the music that I love. Have to thank all our fans for making this possible. Could not do it without them on our side.
- ·For those who might not be aware of the fact, Manilla Road have a new album out entitled “Mysterium” – an album that was recorded with the assistance of two new members, namely Joshua Castillo (bass) and Neudi (drums). Can you please introduce the new members to us and explain the process by which their services were acquired? Are they full time members yet or still going through a probation period of sorts?
Shark: Well Josh had been with us before Neudi joined. He came on board after we found out that Vince was not going to be able to keep performing because of problems he was having with his hand.
He gracefully bowed out because he did not want to hold the band back by making us wait until he could play again. There was no telling at the time how much time it would take for his hand to heal completely and no real guarantee that he was even going to be able to play again at all.
Luckily he is doing much better and playing his instrument again. We used Ernie Hellwell to finish up the “Playground of the Damned” album when Vince started having issues with his hand and then Josh came on to fill the bass player slot permanently. So he is way past his probation period at this point haha.
Then Cory (our drummer at the time) ended up with some personal issues going on in his life that made it impossible for him to tour with us any longer for an indefinite period of time.
So I had to make a business decision because we had already booked the Hammer Of Doom Festival that year and we were to be the headliner. Well Manilla Road has never cancelled a show yet and I did not want to start then either.
So I got in touch with my old friend Neudi and asked him if he would fill in for Cory at the Hammer of Doom. He said yes of course and we did the show and it was a great event with Neudi and Josh gelling really well and at the end of the show Neudi started telling me that he would drop everything to be in Manilla Road.
Well how could I say no. It was like the saving angel had come to save our ass. So I made that tough business decision and chose to let Cory go and bring Neudi on board to fill his shoes. Well it has all turned out for the best for Manilla Road and fans alike. Neudi fits into this band perfectly just like Josh does.
Neudi did not really need a probation period because we already knew each other really well and were good friends. And his learning of 25 songs in 3 days of rehearsal with us before the Hammer of Doom showed us all that he was up to the task of being the drummer for Manilla Road.
They both have been huge contributors to making it possible to put on the really good shows that we are doing right now. I could not be happier with my line up and the way things are shaping up for the Road right now. It’s all good in the Manilla camp right now.
- “Mysterium” was released by the German label ZYX Music back in February but I found out of its existence completely by accident only a few weeks ago. What been the strategy agreed between the band and the label with regards its promotion and what does it entail?
Shark: There has been a pretty big promotion push on the album actually. Lots of ads in the big trades and of course all the tour dates that we are doing to support the album. I’ve been doing a shit load of interviews and there has been a good amount of promotion with the radio also.
I’ve seen reviews in magazines that we have never been in before and ones that I’m actually surprised that we are in at all because they hardly ever cover underground metal bands like us. So it is most assuredly more promotion than we have ever had before for a release and the distribution that the label has is very huge indeed so I think we are in a good space with them right now.
- “Mysterium” is a very interesting album in the sense that it sounds pretty fresh even though it incorporates elements that are classic Manilla Road. How would you describe the writing process for the album? How similar or different was it to that for “Playground Of The Damned” (2011) or any of your previous studio albums?
Shark: Well this was a really important album for us. We were signing to a new and bigger label than we have ever been on and so it was very challenging in the mind to know that we had to really come up with a great project or run the risk of being dropped from the label before we ever got the chance to prove ourselves. But in the end I just did pretty much what I always do when writing a new project.
I just let the muse guide me through it all. I would start jamming in the studio with my engineer and see what came up. It seemed like every time we started messing around I would come up with some riffs that sounded really cool to us and we would just start putting the pieces together and eventually a cool song would start taking shape and we were off to the races then.
I had already decided on much of the topic content because I was determined to do some material based upon my own family heritage that I had not touched on before such as my Uncle Ludwig von Leichhardt the German explorer of Australia and the Scottish, English and Irish heritage in my family as well.
Several times have I dived into the Viking ancestries of my lineage but I had not really gone into the other roots of my family so I thought it would make for some interesting material. The music on the other hand was something that was an intentional move towards the more classic Manilla Road style. I think I did this because of two main reasons.
First I knew that we were going to be finally reaching a bigger audience and I wanted to really exemplify well the overall style of the band to those who had not been introduced to Manilla Road before.
I figured that a good collage of material that shows all the roots and most of the different approaches that the band has was vital in this case. The other thing was that our last several projects were very progressive and not really concept albums. Well “Mysterium” is not a total concept album but it does have a couple of concepts within that take up more than half of the time on the project.
I wanted to have more of the traditional approach of the band on this one because we had not really done a project for some time that had so much of the project based upon the roots of the band. There is still some experimenting on “Mysterium” but just not as much as in the past couple of projects.
We also did some different things in the production that proved to be gold for us. We got a new drum set in the studio for Neudi but the main production change was that we mixed the album in a different studio with an outside engineer that gave us a new approach and ear to the sound of the band and the project on “Mysterium”. It seemed to work out really good. So there were several differences in the making of “Mysterium” opposed to that of the other last projects of the Road.
- I am sure that when you began working on the album, you did so with a certain vision in mind. To what extend would you say was that vision fulfilled? Is there anything that, in retrospect, you would have done differently if you were to undertake this task again?
Shark: I don’t think I would change anything at this point. The vision I had for “Mysterium” pretty much turned out as good as I hoped. So I would say that my vision for the album was fulfilled.
There are always small little things that you can think of that you might have changed but one thing that I have found out in this weird music career that I have had is that you have to trust the passion and not the technology.
It’s still all about how good it feels and sounds and not how correct the approach is. I have always said that I don’t give a shit if it is not supposed to work in theory…If it sounds cool then it is cool. Well I think “Mysterium” sounds really cool so I’m more than happy to leave it where it is.
- Even though I appreciate the new album in full I would be lying if I were to say that there are no stand out tracks on it. Can I ask you to provide a few clues behind the creation of those closer to my heart, namely “Do What Thou Will”, “The Fountain” and the same-tiled eleven minute opus “Mysterium”?
Shark: I’m glad you like it man. Well let’s look at those 3 songs then. “Do What Thou Will” is a take off on the old pagan saying used all the time in Wiccan Rituals of balance. The lyrics are about finding your own path and doing what you will with your life and following your own wishes in instead of settling for what is expected in society.
The music for that song is pretty doom like and the real different thing about the approach of that song is that it is doom music with a positive attitude with the lyrics. “The Fountain” is a metaphoric song about following your dreams and never giving up on them. It is presented like one looking for the fountain of youth but it really applies to all walks of life.
The music for this song is more folk-like, done in a bit of a Scottish or Celtic approach which I think is perfect for that particular song. I have always loved acoustic style music and so it’s only natural for me to throw some stuff like that into an album. Even our first album “Invasion” had an acoustic only track on it with “Centurion War Games”.
As for the title cut “Mysterium” that was a really important song to me because the topic is about my Great Great Great Uncle Ludwig von Leichhardt who was a German explorer (very famous actually) in Australia and disappeared in the outback on his last expedition in the mid 1800’s.
I spent a lot of time working on writing that song and making it as epic as I could. Works of epic nature like that are usually the closest to my heart musically and with the topic being about my family it became a personal quest to make that song as cool as possible. That is maybe my favourite song on the album.
- Bryan Hellroadie Patrick has been a really loyal companion for you over these last few years and, as time goes by, his voice acquires a newfound depth and emotion, as suggested by the magnificent “The Fountain”. It feels to me as he is the kind of singer that could provide inspiration for guitarists such as yourself for many albums/years to come. Is that an accurate assessment?
Shark: It is an accurate statement that you make except for one thing. I sang “The Fountain” and not him hahaha. But you are correct that he has been a loyal friend and even longer than just the last few years.
Bryan started working with the Road as a road manager and road technician somewhere in 1981 or 82. So he has really been there with me since almost the beginning of the Road. I think we have saved each others lives a half a dozen times and we have been through the thick of it all together.
And he has done so well at developing his voice and his style so that it works well with classic Manilla Road and yet still has a bit of his own thing going on too. If not for Hellroadie we could not pull off, live, a lot of the old Manilla Road songs that we do live.
- The only slightly ‘negative’ think I can mention about the album is with regards its production which I believe, though fairly decent, could have assisted the ten compositions on offer slightly more. I understand the need for a band like Manilla Road to feature a raw sound but does that need suggest that there will be no space for improvement in that field? Having been credited as a recording engineer, what’s your take on that?
Shark: Well first of all “Mysterium” is in my opinion and most that have reviewed the album the best production we have ever had so far. I did not mix this album in fact. I recorded all of it in my studio but the mix was done by Steve Falke at Cornerstone Studio which is a much fancier studio than I own.
I personally think there is always improvement to be made but “Mysterium” is by far the best production that we have done with a MR album. I don’t like things that are over produced though.
I prefer to hear what a band can sound like and not just the processors that they use. Nowadays you don’t even have to have a guitar amplifier set up to record guitars with. You can just use the computer processors that are a part of many of the computer recording programs.
I prefer more of a live feel to my recordings. We don’t use triggers or bullshit with our recordings. We try to keep it real and powerful and we will always be trying to do our best to improve the sound without sacrificing the true essence of the music or the band.
- I am not sure how you perceive the music press these days and what your relationship is like with it but I assume that you will be interested in the reviews provided by fellow journalists. What has been their overall reaction to “Mysterium”? Have you come across any review that stood out for all the wrong reasons?
Shark: Most of the reviews have been really great and yes I do pay attention to them. I don’t really change my approach because of them but I do check them out and give consideration to what is being said. The ones that bother me sometimes are the ones where the reviewer gets so much of the information incorrect.
I figure if you are going to be a journalist then you should do at least enough research to know what the hell you are talking about haha. I remember reading one review where the reviewer said that we used triggered drums and tuned our guitars down. That is the farthest from the truth that it could be.
We only experimented with digital drums on one album and that was “The Courts of Chaos” back in 1990. Other than that album we have never used drum triggers or digital drums. And I have never tuned my guitar down. I always have played in A-440 tuning which is standard tuning. All of the stuff that I do that sounds like it is tuned down is just the technique that is being used to create the sound. I use many different chord voices to accomplish those types of doom ridden sounds.
- I am a proud owner of the limited edition of “Mysterium” which includes a bonus DVD featuring material from the band’s performance at the Hammer Of Doom festival back in 2011. Does the existence of that very extra disc suggest that no separate DVD release will see the light of day in the near future – a release that I know that many hardcore fans of the band are really looking forward to?
Shark: No there will be more DVD stuff released that is for sure. We are working on making a documentary like movie about the Road and there will be many more DVD releases before we are through.
We are not and most likely never will be a commercial band and so our priority is more with the music than anything else. I think the live performances are really important but working on new music always takes front stage with me. But there will be more live DVD stuff from us as we mass more footage and do more shows and touring.
- To my knowledge, there has never been a video promoting a Manilla Road song in existence. Is that due to lack of faith in this medium or purely due to economic restraints? If you were given enough funds to record a video for this album, which song would you choose and how would you approach its visual representation?
Shark: We have never done a MTV like video and who knows we may not ever do one. It’s not just a matter of money. If we really wanted to do a video like that we would have done one a long time ago. But once again the emphasis is not on anything else besides the music and our live performances and the studio projects that we do.
Now I would not mind seeing someone of talent try to put together an animated movie based upon the “Atlantis Rising” album and the movie itself following right along with the entire album.
I think if that was done right it would be cool. If I had to pick a song from the “Mysterium” album to do a video on then that would most likely be “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge” with the ghostly Scottish warriors appearing to battle it out on the bridge again. But that would take quite a budget for all the special makeup and effects. Hell any song that we would do could turn into a cast of hundreds type of thing easily haha.
- By the time this interview becomes available online you will have most likely performed at Maryland Deathfest and Sweden Rock, both very prestigious festivals, and you will be preparing yourselves for a handful more with Hellfest looking as the absolute Summer highlight. That is quite a busy live schedule you have to undertake. How does it feel after all these years to have such an interest being generated toward the band?
Shark: I’m loving it. It’s nice to see all of the hard work that has been put into the band paying off a little bit. But in truth a lot of the reason that we have not toured that much in the past is because of our personal lives.
Bryan and I have been raising kids all these years past. I have been raising my two kids primarily on my own and it is just now that they are getting old enough that I feel like I can take off and do this kind of touring.
But it is fascinating to me that we are still a viable band out there and it seems that we are more popular than ever now. But that tends to happen when you tour more also. So it all sort of goes hand in hand.
- You have worked with quite a few musicians over the years. Which one amongst them would you say has been the most influential on you and the band in terms of progression?
Shark: Bryan. Ever since the early days he and I have shared our thoughts and desires for Manilla Road with each other and it is he that has moved me in directions more than anyone else.
- Even though you are quite an important figure in Heavy Metal there is not much information available for you as a person readily available. Would you describe yourself as a private person? What is a typical day in Mark Shelton’s life like?
Shark: Yep I am a fairly private person. If I was not I would never find the time to write all the crap that I do haha. A day in the life of Shark depends totally on which day it is. Some days I am the dad only taking care of stuff for my children and then there are those days where all that happens in the entire day is working on music.
Then there is the Shark that goes to the golf course with Bryan and we get totally shit faced and have a blast being idiots with clubs in our hands chasing a little white ball all over hell and back.
Then there are those days that I just take off on my motorcycle and ride to wherever the road takes me. I’m still sort of an adventurer at heart and so that makes the touring that much cooler and better for me as well. I love mingling with the audience when we are at shows and getting to meet everyone so in that respect I’m not that introverted when we are on the road.
- Together with bands like Omen, Queensryche, Sanctuary and Crimson Glory you have helped forge a scene in the mid 80s which has produced some pretty great albums in the history of Metal. To your recollection, what was it about that particular moment in time that led to such a positive emergence of top quality bands on your side of the pond?
Shark: I think it was a peyote leak into the water supply over here that did it…..haha. No really I think it was a reaction to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back then… maybe. I think a lot of us were inspired by bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and the more intense directions with Hard Rock that they were delivering. Those were not the only bands influencing everyone but I think you get my direction here.
- I always felt that Manilla Road never achieved the attention and commercial success that they truly deserved. Having said that, your discography consists of eighteen albums (if you include “The Circus Maximus”) and you are already in the process of working for album number nineteen! What would you say is the highlight of your career thus far and what is the next target you wish to reach?
Shark: The highlight is the feat of still being around now, still doing what I love to do. As for a specific high point of the career then that would maybe have to be having bands that I idolized earlier in my life opening up for us live now.
Something really strange about that which makes it sort of a milestone for me. There have been so many great moments in the life of Manilla Road that it is really hard to just point at one thing but I must admit one of the big things in the past was when we got Flaming Metal Systems put on the US Metal Volume III release. It is what really brought Manilla Road to the attention of the metal audience worldwide back then.
- There are many young musicians out there who love all things Epic Metal and who look towards Manilla Road for inspiration. Have there been any that have come to your attention? If you were to give such young musicians a little piece of advice, what would that be?
Shark: I have noticed that and I think it is remarkable. I really never expected to be that much of an influence on other musicians. Mainly because in truth I am just a Kansas cowboy reaching for the stars like anyone else. If I had to give advice to other bands it would have to be simply: don’t give up.
Follow your passion and not the direction that everyone else thinks you should be going. If you love it then do it with all your heart. You get out of it what you put in and sometimes it takes a lot of work and giving to get to the point where it feels like it is paying off. The other thing I would say is to measure success upon what you think is successful and not necessarily how much money you make doing it. Having people say to me that my music changed their life is the most flattering and successful thing I can imagine.
- When the time finally comes to lay Manilla Road to rest, something that I hope will not happen in the immediate future but instead many years from now, do you see yourself continuing your involvement in music from a different function, such as that of a producer?
Shark: I doubt it. When and if that time ever comes that I put down the sword of Manilla Road then I would expect that I will just retire to a life of writing literature. But to tell you the truth I just can’t imagine ever not playing or writing and recording music.
- Mark, thank you once again for taking the time to answer these questions. I am really looking forward to seeing you guys at Hellfest and also to listening to new material soon. The last words are yours.
Shark: Thank you so much for doing this interview with me and for taking the time to ask really cool questions instead of the typical ones. In closing I would like to just thank all of our supporters and fans that have and are helping keep Manilla Road alive in the world of metal. We owe everything that Manilla Road is to all of you for helping make my dreams come true. Blessed Be to all and of course Up The Hammers & Down The Nails! Shark
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