While most young musicians first pick up their instrument in hope of fame and fortune Joe McGuian, bassist of the Irish Thrash Metal combo Gama Bomb chose, a long time ago, to do so for what he described as ‘all the right reasons’ – namely for fun and a love of music. My chat with him at the Underworld focused on the band’s latest album “The Terror Tapes”, Gama Bomb’s battle to continue providing people with free access to their music and their plans on how to keep their well oiled music machine going for years to come.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Joe. Nice to meet you in person. Tonight’s show is part of a short UK tour that you’re currently undertaking for the promotion of your latest album “The Terror Tapes”. Now, with only one more night left on this tour, would you say that you have enjoyed the overall experience?
Joe: Yeah, it’s been very good. We did five different UK tours when we released our previous album (note: “Tales From The Grave In Space”/2009) which was probably a bit too much (laughs) over the course of two years. We were looking forward to see if we can get any decent numbers after this time and both the reception and the turnout have been pretty good so we are now thinking of making this (note: touring in the UK) an annual thing. Yeah, it’s been really good and we’ve been surprised by how good the fan response to the new album has been over here.
- This, to me, is a time in your band’s career which is quite important. It was not too long ago that bands such Gama Bomb, Evil, Municipal Waste and Warbringer came under the spotlight as the purveyors of the neo-Thrash, or whatever you choose to call it, scene. Now, with labels’ attention having moved to 70s Rock orientated bands, I am quite interested to see what kind of impact this will have on bands like yours and how your fans will respond to this. This is the time that will separate the men from the boys, right?
Joe: Yeah (laughs). Things have definitely changed. Like you said, the labels and the press have obviously ‘moved on’ which is what happens with everything as trends do change every couple of years, but, one of the things about Thrash, which also kind of applies to Death Metal, is that people who love it and who have their denim vests covered with Sodom patches are very true as fans. I mean, bands like Tankard have been making albums for thirty years now and they’ve had the same guys following them because, like with AC/DC, you know what to expect from them. You know that this band has good intentions, they’re going to write music that’s pure of heart instead of having…there’s no money behind it, so there’s no other option. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, whenever Metallica brought out the “Black Album”, every other Thrash band tried to recreate the same thing, you know? Take “Souls Of Black” (see Testament), “Quatro” by Flotsam And Jetsam, “Force Of Habit” (see Exodus); every band tried it because there was money involved and the possibility of one selling millions of records. But people aren’t stupid, you know? Bands know when you can smell bullshit so I think that, this time round, there’s no real money involved and so bands have no reason to simply try to make themselves appeal to the masses, you know? There’s no reason for Gama Bomb to try to write some catchy chorus in order to sell some records because we’re not going to anyway (laughs). So yes, you’re right – things have changed a lot since, say, 2008 when the New Wave Of Thrash became very popular and stuff but we’ve been doing this since 2002 and we’re happy that we were part of that. I am not going to say that we weren’t or that we’re not a New Wave Of Thrash band, because we are, but we’re not going to die with that scene either. We were here before and we will still be here after.
- Do you reckon that, during the time that the New Wave Of Thrash scene was popular you had enough time to convince people of your value as a band and create the solid fan base needed in order to sustain you in the years to come?
Joe: Yes. I don’t think that we’re ever going to become as big as Metal Church or anything like that (laughs) but I think that the people who like us now are going to like us in ten years time too – the same way that I have been loving Tankard from the time I was twenty till now that I am thirty years old. It’s funny that a lot of the bands like Warbringer or Evile kind of thought of us like being a retro Thrash band that’s changed things too much and people were like: “Are you guys just another modern Heavy Metal band or do you have the right intentions? Do you play Thrash for the sake of playing Thrash or do you change things along the way in an attempt to try to stay relevant”? Now, we never really cared about whether we’re relevant, you know? Our last album was full of songs about Robocops (laughs) – not about the Matrix or whatever (laughs). So, I think that the reason why people have stuck with us is because we keep doing the same thing but try to do it better with each album, instead of trying to constantly experiment, you know? The name of the band means a lot to us and so I would hate it if our name ended up being associated with something crap, you know – something that I didn’t like.
- While waiting to meet you for this interview I was looking around the venue and saw many young people wearing your T-shirts – a clear indication that the majority of your fans are of a certain, and relatively young, age group. At the same time, there are people closer to my generation who are also waiting patiently for you guys to hit the stage and that is good as it proves that you have managed to convince a few old-schoolers of what you’re capable of achieving.
Joe: You know, that means a lot to us because for somebody who’s sixteen or seventeen and who’s never seen Nuclear Assault back in 1989, well, it’s easier for somebody to say: “Yeah, Gama Bomb are a great band”. It does mean a lot but it’s different when somebody who’s seen everybody that was there since day one and people that have been listening to this music for twenty years get to say: “Yes, this is good” or that what we do holds up to the same as the music from the 80s. That makes us really happy.
- Do you think that the group of Thrash Metal fans who have been around since then have been perhaps a little bit unfair towards bands like yourselves? Have you been given the opportunity to prove yourselves to them?
Joe: No, I don’t think that they’ve been unfair to us at all. It’s our job to try to convince people. People should not automatically just go: “Oh yeah Thrash Metal – this is good”. There are a lot of Thrash Metal bands out there that I hate, you know, both from the 80s and new ones so…just let your music do your walking – that’s what I say. It’s a tough one, you know, but I don’t think that we’ve been unfairly treated. There have been a few reviews where people have said things like: “Testament did this twenty years ago” which is weird for me because nobody ever said something similar for a Death Metal band. I mean, Deicide have been doing this for thirty years and Morbid Angel also – there are so many bands that make similar type of music but that’s OK simply because it’s Death Metal. I honestly don’t know why that is. I think that Thrash is different because there’s so much good stuff from, say, 1984 until 1991 and it’s easy to decide that this was the ‘golden period’ and compare music from that era to music that’s made nowadays. Most of the times the new music that’s produced is nowhere near as good, you know?
- Maybe the mistake is to even contemplate making a comparison between the two eras.
Joe: Saying about 70s Rock and classic sounding Rock bands trying to break through: there is a band close to where I live called The Answer. They have supported AC/DC for like a hundred shows in America two years ago and, you know, they were back home and got kicked off by their label and then signed to a new label and stuff. So, it just goes to show that it’s not…people who love AC/DC are not necessarily going to love this band just because they carry Les Pauls and play similar sounding music, you know? I think it would be the same for us if we were to go and open for Anthrax for sixty or seventy shows. I don’t think that we would sell more records or anything because, if I were to go and see AC/DC or Anthrax, I would be going to see AC/DC or Anthrax, not the crap support band (laughs). It’s tough, you know, but nobody has a god given right to expect people to like their music or expect to be treated fairly – that’s not what the world is about. The world is…just make some good music and if people like it they will.
- You are the only band I know of which decided to make its album available online for free while still under contract with a record label. I am referring, of course, to your 2009 release “Tales From The Grave In Space” and Earache records – your former label. Now you’re signed with AFM Records and your approach to how you promote your music has somewhat changed as “The Terror Tapes” has been available as a physical product from day one and only one song, namely “Terrorscope”, has been made available as a free download. Does this change in policy indicate that you deem the experiment made with “Tales From The Grave In Space” to have been unsuccessful?
Joe: Well, hmm…the…hmm…it was a massive success! We got to tour South America and Mexico, places where we had no CDs available to our fans at all, and still don’t, and it did actually outsell our previous album released by Earache (note: “Citizen Brain”/2008). So, business wise it was a great decision. There were some drawbacks: Walmart in America refused to stock the album because in RapidShare it was offered for free but, at the end of the day, that’s all small potatoes compared to the fact that it changes us from being a band based in Ireland and touring only Europe to a band known world-wide. We wanted to do this new album available for free but AFM said that they were not willing to do it. Before we signed with AFM Records we talked with a few labels to see if there was anybody else out there who thought that this would be a possibility but most of the labels simply said no, that it was a bad idea. We tried to convince them – we said that this worked and that we did sell more records because when you give something for free you generate more fans for the band but still they said no. So we said: “Well, meet us half way – let’s do an EP for free”. Part of the thing, I suppose, is that…the reason why we signed with AFM is because they said that they were willing to licence the album in South America, Mexico and Japan whereas Earache just point blank refused. They said: “No, we’re not interested”. We previously told them: “Such and such label in Brazil wants to release the album” and Earache said “Ok, tell them that if they give us three thousand dollars they can then release the album”. So yeah, I think that, ideally, we would like to be able to have the album out for free on AFM Records but I think that anybody who likes Gama Bomb knows that if they want they can download the music for free anyway. We’re glad that we have the physical distribution: all our vinyl was sold out and we have no more for sale. They all sold out within a month – we didn’t even manage to get a copy (laughs). So, there are people still out there willing to support us and we’re really happy because downloading the music onto your phone isn’t for everybody – there are so many people who like records and 7” singles and things. I think that for the growth of the band, for Gama Bomb to become a better known band, doing the free downloading is the perfect idea but I can also see why, business wise, this has scared quite a few people.
- Most labels obviously understand that there’s no major money to be made anymore in physical products being sold – exceptions being those labels which specialise in limited editions of a certain level of quality. Everybody knows that if a band is to make any money these days that will be from selling merchandise once on tour, as well as from the performance fees, of course. That being the case, the indecisiveness of labels to make music available for free and focus more on making agreements with bands on the basis of how much merchandise is being sold at shows seems quite strange, to say the least…
Joe: …yeah, indeed. Our previous agreement with Earache Records was like that. We had control over our merchandise and they got a third of all sales. When we decided to move labels, that was the first time that we said “Ok, we cannot do this anymore” so we informed AFM Records of our decision. A band belonging to a friend of mine was offered a deal with Earache and another clause they added in the contract was that Earache was to get ten percent of whatever the fee was for playing a show. Now, for a small band to do that will only lose them $10.00 but if your band becomes big like Municipal Waste are, 10% may end up becoming £300.00 a night – every night you’re on tour. It’s just…I think that there has to be some sort of middle ground. It’s not a good idea for labels to have control on all the merchandise because it means that it’s impossible for bands to make enough money to tour, but, at the same time, you’re right – there’s not enough money in physical music for a label to just act like in the old days and say: “Yeah, the new Forbidden album is going to sell 60,000 copies”. It’s a tough one. I don’t really know what the answer to that is. I think that…with AFM the agreement was that they could make one T-Shirt per album to sell but that was it – they don’t own any T-shirt rights or our publishing rights or anything else. They can bring out the album and then we will see what happens with the next one, if we’re going to do a next album together or not. We’re nearly at a stage now where it would be easy for us to self-release our music for free.
- I was going to ask you whether you would consider going for the whole ‘Marillion thing’ or not.
Joe: Well, yeah. The only reason why we wouldn’t do that is because of artwork, cover artwork. To work with good people is still expensive – there’s no cheap way of doing it, you know? Graham Humphreys, who did our last album cover, he did the poster for “A Nightmare On Elm Street”, “Evil Dead” and I am a huge fan of that stuff. That album cover cost us $2,000 or something and if we were not signed with any label we would be able to record the music for free but we would not be able to each pull £500.00 for that, you know (laughs)? I suppose, as well, that it’s the whole publicity thing – everybody needs a publicist for things like that as well as informing people that a new album is out…I don’t know. I don’t know what the future holds really; I am just glad that, whatever happens, we are still going to be able to release the music ourselves and give it away for free if we want to or through a label, you know?
- I was looking on the Internet to see what the band’s plans of further shows are but I could not find anything relevant. Are you going to attend any of this year’s summer festivals?
Joe: I think that we have two or three festivals in Holland and Belgium coming up in May and then we will be doing a South American tour in August for a week. I think that we will also going to do another European tour near the end of the year. It’s kind of funny because the last tour we did for “Tales…” we played something like two hundred shows over the course of two years, which is a lot for a band who’re as small as we are, so I think that this time we’re going to try and do less shows and focus instead on making the ones that we play become better in quality. We would like to be able to do some festivals, but…it’s a funny thing. We were offered…we were offered the Wacken festival in Germany and the offer was €50.00 and half an hour backstage, so…we would love to play at Wacken. It would be great to play in front of 10,000 people but I don’t want to be taken advantage of just to do it. I’d rather wait and if not do it the next year maybe we will do it the year after or maybe not. Our popularity, especially in Italy, Belgium and Holland seems to be on the rise. The last couple of shows that we played in Holland were sold out and that was the first time that we did a sold out show anywhere. So, yeah, people definitely want to come and I think that we kind of have a reputation for being fun live, that we can really put a fun live show and I think that as long as we keep on doing that people will continue being interested in us.
- Do you guys operate off, say, a five year plan of sorts or do you have a different approach to things?
Joe: Not really. The idea is always just to…well, our album came out in April and we’ve already have fifteen songs written for the next album but they’re not good enough yet, so it might take us another year to get all those songs up to the level where we think that they’re good enough to put them on our next album. That’s always been our plan. We’ve never had a problem writing songs – it’s always just the timescale of: “Ok, these songs are ready so let’s just record them”. This album? We’ve been doing lots and lots of music videos so far and hopefully the idea will be that, for the next album, instead of doing three or four music videos we are going to try and make a forty five minute movie or something. We will try to do it exactly as you would imagine it to be: cheesy and dubbed as they were in the 80s. I think that this is what we’re going to try to do but it’s too hard to know if we will have enough time to write a good album, write the soundtrack, produce a movie and do a tour. Everybody in the band has a real job and…we have lots of good ideas and so that’s our five year plan in a way – to keep on using the good ideas that we have (laughs).
- With the music business having changed dramatically these last few years do you see yourselves committing to Gama Bomb full time?
Joe: I wouldn’t want to! I think that once money and stuff starts to enter into the whole thing that’s when people start having arguments and fall out. We all have jobs, like real full-time jobs, so we’re happy to keep doing that and keep making music for the right reasons, as in for fun and because we like Thrash Metal, instead of doing it because there’s a pay cheque at the end of the rainbow, you know (laughs)? Tankard is a band which has had a huge influence on us, not only musically but as people. When we first met and talked to them they said to us: “Listen, you keep on doing this but have a job so that you can take your wives out to dinner and stuff (laughs) – don’t just be sitting about like a bum waiting for the next tour to happen”. Bands like Kreator and Destruction, those guys have to play seventy shows a year or there’s no bread on the table, you know? So as long as we can keep doing this and keep our day jobs then all will be well.
- Well Joe, I wish you all the luck in the world.
Joe: Thank you very much and for this interview, man – the questions have been really good!
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