Mike Howe is very happy man these days and it shows. Having returned to Metal Church after a twenty year period gap, the Michigan-born singer has help Kurdt Vanderhoof and Co create in “XI” one of the most impressive comeback albums in modern Metal history. With touring firmly on the agenda the US legends decided to visit my hometown Athens, and as I am sure you can appreciate, the opportunity of talking to this great singer about the band’s current and future plans was not one I was willing to miss. If you want to know what the atmosphere within the band is these days, the process by which “XI” came to life and whether metal…butterflies do exist then please read on!
By Ioannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Mike. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Fifteen minutes is not enough to talk to a man whose contribution to the Metal scene is as important as yours so let us crack on. It’s a great pleasure having Metal Church playing in Athens. I believe this is your first time ever on Greek soil, right?
Mike: Well…no! I believe we did a gig in Athens back in 1993 (note: did not sound all that sure).
- Seriously? Where was I then (I laugh)?
Mike: I don’t know (laughs). We didn’t play Thessaloniki, it was cancelled, because there were problems with their PA systems and things like that but we did do a show in Athens; I cannot remember which the venue in question was but we did play a show here.
- Blimey, I stand corrected then! I obviously missed an opportunity at that time but I did have the pleasure of seeing the band perform shows abroad over the years so I feel less guilty over that. Today, however, is a great occasion as not only are you back in the band but you are promoting “XI”, the band’s latest release which has received really positive review since it was released last year. I think, well I actually know, that a lot of the album’s success has to do with the fact that you are back into the picture. What is your experience so far being back in Metal Church?
Mike: It actually feels like a dream come true, you know, being able to do this again. At my age this is like a second chance at being a kid again, but as an adult. I wish I knew what I know now when I was twenty two but I do now and I have the chance to do this all again. I see things from an adult perspective and I get to enjoy this all, to appreciate every minute of it so that is the main thing here. Sitting here with you, talking with you – I am really appreciative of that, you know? Every aspect of it is great; being on the road, meeting the fans, doing the music and doing it our way without any outside influences from management and things like that…this is our second time round and we get to do things exactly how we want to.
- Do you find that now that the music industry has changed so much you get more out of the band that you would have, had the band not broken up back in 1995?
Mike: Well yes and that’s why I left, because I was not in control of what was happening. I was too young and I could not steer my own ship, per se. I did not know how to do that and I was being pushed around by other ‘captains’ outside our little tight group. Yes, like I said, it is very empowering when you are in control of your own life and what you want to do and how you live it. Kurdt (Vanderhoof: guitarist) and I are so happy in the band right now because we are just enjoying playing music, you know?
- I don’t know what you felt when you decided to come back into the band but I am sure that there was a point when you thought “am I doing the right thing getting back into this circus”? If you were to compare the atmosphere within the band back then, and granted there were different members back then, to now, what are the main differences? Which are the thing happening now in your relationship that makes your decision to return a sensible one?
Mike: Well, maturity is the main element, you know? Everyone in the band is a mature adult…well, almost everybody (laughs). No, everyone is an adult; we have our fun but it’s an adult fun. We all get along great, we enjoy each other’s company, we respect each other as musicians on stage and everything is just clicking. It’s a very joyous occasion being in Metal Church right now and I feel very grateful for that.
- Metal Church are a band who know how to employ technology for the interests of promoting music, which is a great thing as we are living in the twenty first century after all and people communicate in different ways that they did back in the early 90s. I see in your Facebook page daily entries with people that attend your shows which proves that you have a very loyal fan base indeed.
Mike: Indeed. We have been blessed with really fans and we enjoy playing for them live.
- “XI” is a really good quality album, one I got hooked with from the word ‘go’. How easy or difficult was it to put together the twelve compositions that are featured in it? I remember that the atmosphere and direction of the band changed completely when you first joined Metal Church back in the day and I was wondering whether this was also the case following your return now. Was there a certain vision that you felt you needed to adhere to this time round or did you just decide to come together, jam and see what happens?
Mike: Well, it’s a yes to both of those. We did have a vision and that was the vision, you know, “let’s just get together and let it happen”. Kurdt and I always had a chemistry together so what we needed to find out was whether we still had this chemistry now and whether our chemistry was just as strong now as it was back when I first joined. When I came back I did not think “I am in the band”; it was more like “I am coming back to see if we can write music together again and find out how that works out”. I wanted to see if Kurdt and I could rekindle that kinship, that…chemistry between us two and that was still there! He’s a great guy, he’s a life-long friend of mine, we have a great kinship together and we hit it off with each other. There are no egos involved; we are like twenty something year olds again back in his studio just saying “that sounds great”. We were very excited like when we were kids, like it should be, right? Seeing things from the joyous perspective of making music, without any outside thoughts of “gosh, I need to write something that will please the fans and the management”. There was no pressure whatsoever because we are older now and we know how to do things. We really enjoy the process and whatever happens, well, let it be judged after the process it over.
- So at what point during that ‘probation period’ of sorts did you say to yourself “you know what, this is actually going to work”?
Mike: Well, when we started laying down the vocal tracks…the way it works is that Kurdt will go into his studio and he will write a rough draft of a whole song, parts to one song. It will feature drums, guitar and bass and he will outline his ideas and record them and he will then send them to me, I will listen to them. So, when I hear the outlines and the riffs and all that I get very excited, providing of course that what I hear is very exciting which is what he usually does as he is still very prolific, an amazing writer indeed. These ideas will make me feel excited and come up with ideas so I will fly into his studio where we will have many basic songs put together and we will use the technology offered by Kurdt’s equipment. That’s when melodic vocal parts and singing melodies will start coming out and at this stage we will start the pre-production process. That’s the great thing about the tool of electronics these days. Digital technology; you can just pull parts out and move them around or take them out completely and carry on. There were parts, extra parts of songs that we took out and used as many ideas for other compositions which is much easier to do these days. Songs like “Shadow” were brought to life via this method. That was a bridge part at one point and I said “that doesn’t make sense in this song for me but I love that riff so let’s use that idea as the main riff and write a song around that” which Kurdt did in an amazing way. If you say something like that to him he does it – it’s great. That’s how we create our music; it’s very magical, beautiful, from the heart. You have to be genuine because fans know when you are and when you’re not. We just try to be honest with what we do.
- That does come across in your work – there’s no denying that. When the time came to decide on the vocal lines and melodies that you employed, how much did your common past with Metal Church affect your performances and overall approach to singing? Did you feel free enough to try new things with your voice – things that the untrained ear would not be able to easily detect?
Mike: Yes, we did consciously say “this time we’re not going to think about it too much” because in the past we would sometimes write a song and go “OK, I like the melody of this and we have the song structure so let’s go back and write lyrics that are about this one subject, that means something to us, and fit them there”, you know? This time we decided not to do that but let Mike Howe spill out lyrics and syllables and see how they flow and let us be more organic with how it comes out of me, you know? I tried to write lyrics around the way these ideas came out of me and that’s how we did it this time – we decided not to fight the urge, not think of things too much.
- Looking at the set list from previous shows you performed during this tour one finds that the main emphasis will be on “XI” which makes sense. It must have been a really tough decision decided which songs would make it to the set and which wouldn’t.
Mike: There are two jokes that come out of that, as we love jokes and we are a fun band that tends not to take things two seriously. The first joke is “what a horrible problem to have”, right (laughs)? How do we make a set list? There isn’t a single song we chose that we felt could potentially be replaced by another. Now, that’s a good problem to have. The second one is “we give and we give and we try our best and it is simply not enough to some people” (laughs).
- This is, however, the ultimate compliment is it not? You have recorded so much amazing music that people simply cannot have enough of it!
Mike: It is a massive complement and it does hurt out feelings. We feel sorry for those fans that are upset by our choices but we say to them that we try our best to please everybody and that we are sorry for not playing this and that song that they would love to be able to hear. This is the best that we can do when faced with such a difficult challenge.
- Understandably, the set lists of previous shows have not included any material that you have not featured in as a singer of the band, with the exception of two compositions from “The Dark” era (note: “Start The Fire” & “Watch The Children Play”) and one from your debut release (note: “Beyond The Black”).
Mike: I sang more from the David Wayne ear songs but these were the ones…Kurdt came to me and said “Mike, you’re back – you pick the songs you want to sing”. He let me pick them so I went “OK, I want to do this and this and this” to which he replied “sounds great” and then all we had to do is to try and put them in good order.
- I do remember, when coming across the said set lists, how amazing it would be to hear your voice in some of the Metal Church compositions that were recorded after the band first disbanded, during the Ronny Munroe era for instance. I mean, you are my personal favourite Metal Church singer, no disrespect to any of the other lads, but I would love to hear your voice in some of these later era songs, which were recorded without you.
Mike: It is art what we do and art is, of course, subjective.
- The set list is amazing anyway and maybe it’s best for people not to know what they will listen.
Mike: I am that kind of person. I don’t want to watch a movie trailer before I go and watch the film on offer, I don’t want to see anything related to a band show prior to going – I want to experience things first time and in full.
- With regards your very impressive vocal range; you have done a few things after Metal Church split up in the mid-90s but you haven’t quite over-exposed yourself if I can use that expression. You kept a low profile for a long period of time and that must have been fairly beneficial in terms of keeping your voice in the great condition that it is. That may not have been the case had you been a touring musician during all those years.
Mike: We don’t have tome machines unfortunately so that I could go back and redo it and find out, but and so my answer to what you asked would be yes, that could be true, but there are singer now whose voice is still powerful after many years and it all boils down to technique, you know, diaphragm singing and employing correct techniques when doing that. There are two categories of singers, the throat singers and the diaphragm singers and I am more of a classical singer with the diaphragm yelling – the Pavarotti type of thing, you know, with a little screaming involved. That’s what gives singers longevity and…I mean, look at a guy like James Hetfield; he’s just as powerful as ever, right? I think so and he is a diaphragm type of singer. You can do it.
- Well Mike, much as I would love to be able to talk to you some more I am told that our time is up
Mike: I wish we could talk some more as well.
- Well, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us at Get Ready To rock. I hope you have a great time tonight playing for your Athenian fans and I hope to get and see and hear more of you in the months and years to come at it certainly fills us with pleasure.
Mike: Thanks man and, to that end, we have a huge amount of songs, eighteen or twenty songs, ready now in Kurdt’s studio at a caterpillar stage that are ready to press forward as…butterflies (laughs)? Metal Butterflies!
- Well, I haven’t come across one yet but there is always a first time for everything.
Mike: Right (laughs). So we’re ready; we’re going to have a new album soon. Right after the summer tour ends we are going to get together and start moulding those ideas into songs.
- The best closing I could hope for this interview – thanks man.
Mike: Thank you. Thank you for spreading the word and for being there for Metal Church.
Throughout September 2018 Get Ready to ROCK! Radio celebrated the station’s 10th anniversary and a two-hour special reflected a decade of broadcasting. “10 years in the making” features archive interviews with Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Todd Rundgren, Graham Bonnet, David Coverdale, John Wetton and Bob Catley.
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