After a back-and-forth of conflicting schedules and a shitty time difference, I was finally able to chat with Amulet guitarist Heathen Stephen about their recent album and the state of British heavy metal.
Kane: So let’s begin with The Inevitable War, which came out on 17 May. Is there anything you tried to do differently than you did in The First?
Marek “Heathen” Stephen: It’s more interesting in terms of the songwriting, and the production is a little bit beefier and cleaner and a bit more colour to it. So we actively wanted to have, like, double-track vocals for the first time and incorporate some keyboard sounds and just really take our time to make sure that the record was as good as it could be for us.
Yeah, that definitely paid off because it did sound like a more refined and upgraded version for sure.
M: Yeah. I think Nippy and I were particularly chuffed with it but that is a quite cool production that Jamie did. We wanted to try to get something a little bit more hi-fi and the big other decision we made was stealing an idea from our friends Antichrist in Sweden who basically produce the record themselves, in rehearsal rooms and stuff, and really take their time. So we wanted to do that as well so we used Nippy’s brother, Tom, who’s really super-nerd, awesome ear and everything, help us to record every three or four months so we could do it within budget as well. But like I said everything was as good as we hoped it could be.
And how did the lineup complications factor into how the album turned out?
M: I mean, obviously that wasn’t ideal, having three members leave at roughly one-year intervals. It could have been worse; if they all left at the same time, the band would have been over. But we found new members each time. What it did do is give us more time to write the songs. Like, two or three songs on the album we had been writing for at least five years, so it allowed the songs to mature. In ‘The Satanist’ in that bit in the middle where it gets really mellow, that was my idea but it came pretty late in the day. And I think if we had gone into the studio in 2015, what we should have done, really, I don’t think the songs would have been quite as interesting. So, there’s always positive sides to negative things happening in life, and being forced to take more time was a good thing for a band like us who, you know, do it as a hobby, really. We were sad to see the guys go but they just had to get on with their lives. And the new members are all exceptionally good musicians. [laughs] I’m probably the worst musician in the band. They’re definitely a bit more musically adept than when we first started.
So is the new lineup fairly stable then?
M: Yeah, I think so. I mean, we’re still in touch with the guys that left but I think we’re all getting on really well in the band, enjoying it, and we’re all pulling in the same direction. We seem to agree on songwriting and all the decisions, really. So it definitely feels like something that we’re all really enjoying. It’s not like there’s any money in it [laughs] especially because we’re in the UK. It’s just not a popular type of music in this country at all, so it’s quite hard to make any money. But we need to play in Germany, you know, and other parts of Europe as much as possible, and as many festivals as we can. That’s where it can be a bit more fruitful. Where you sell merch and get reasonable fees playing festivals and stuff like that. I’m happy for it to break even if we’re having a good time. And we get to travel, so I’m not complaining.
So, speaking of Germany and Europe, do you have any big future plans to tour outside the UK?
M: Yeah. Our booking agent kind of moved to Sweden so it was bad timing for the tours we should have been doing right about now, but we are doing some gigs. We’re doing Austria, Germany, Belgium, and Holland, just one-off shows, but we’re going to book more around it. I’m trying to arrange a tour with Helvetets Port from Sweden, who I’m a big fan of. They’ve got a cool new album out in August. So I really want to attack Germany with them for a week or two hopefully in October because I think we’ll do quite well there. In this type of music there are lots of good bands coming out now, but for me, personally, they’re the most authentic in that kind of epic heavy metal, slightly Manowarish, sort of a classic cult metal sound. It’s very genuine, I think. So, yeah, we want to play as much as possible and hopefully it works well in Germany and hopefully we’ll come back to North America. We almost made it to Vancouver but we chickened out about the border last October.
I can imagine it’s very different in North America with all the border shit you have to deal with.
M: Yeah, that’s pretty scary for us. A lot of people said going from America to Canada can be quite nightmarish in that way, you know, for bands, so we decided not to risk it. For our nerves. But it’s a shame. You’ve got some great bands there, you know, like Riot City and all that.
For sure. So you said that your style of music isn’t really popular in the UK, but how has the reception been for the people who have seen you or listened to your music?
M: Really good. We’re really happy with how everybody’s responded to the album and the live shows, too. The reviews and the feedback generally seem to be really good. I think there are still ways we can improve, like get more professional, but I’m really pleased that Amulet’s still got that high energy, positive live performance that we’ve always had in the past. But I think that we’re slightly tighter now and some of the songs are arguably more interesting now. Hopefully it will all bubble away and build, you know. We do have quite a few dedicated fans and we tend to sell out shows a lot, especially in Germany, which is always a good sign. So we’re encouraged and happy with the response.
Looking into the future, where do you want to see Amulet go? Are you going to start releasing albums more frequently or are you content with remaining an underground project?
M: Well, we definitely want to put out a new album much, much sooner than we did previously, so we’re starting pretty much right now. We are ambitious, but there are certain limitations when you have jobs. But it’d be great to, you know, just get on the road, just tour Europe for six months. But unfortunately we can’t really do that at this point. So I think it’s a case of sticking around playing as many weekend festivals and shows as we can and hoping reputation builds.
I think it’s important for heavy metal bands to stick around. You know, if you’re good and you keep plugging away, eventually people are going to discover you, but I think some bands make the mistake of stopping too early. We’ve been going nine years so far but I think you need a good fifteen before you really earn your stripes. So hopefully we can climb the ranks and become a threatening festival act in the future. It’d be nice to play some of the bigger festivals in the UK but it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door. So, working on it.
So, do you have any favourite tracks on The Inevitable War?
M: I do like the whole album, actually. And I’m quite fussy with my own stuff. I do enjoy listening to ‘The Satanist’, although I did write most of it. I just think it’s a fun listen, and I’m quite into the occult things.
M: [laughs] Yeah. It’s got a genuine occult feeling to it but it’s not tongue-in-cheek. It’s kind of esoteric but not too po-faced, is how I’d describe it. I think that’s a nice vibe to start the album with. I think ‘Roundhead’ is the best track on the album. Nippy wrote that one and it’s fantastic and a really interesting, epic song. And I’d say ‘Poison Chalice’ is my other favourite listen. I really think the last part of it is just so heavy. Sam came up with those riffs, those really driving riffs at the end of it that I’m really into. A lot of that stuff we actually improvised because it was written last so a lot of the lyrics and the guitarwork were literally just improvised on the spot. That’s the most fresh track to listen to and probably the most fun one for me to listen to now. I’d like to do a video for that one.
I was going to ask if you had plans for any more videos. But is that just an idea at this point?
M: Yeah, it probably won’t be that one, actually, but that’s the one I’d like to do. But I directed the full video for ‘Roundhead’ which is really fun and I think that came out well. And we made lyric videos for ‘Call of the Siren’ and ‘Shockwave’ and we’ve got a plan to do a nice edit from an old movie called Siege of the Saxons for the track ‘Siege Machine’. It’s gonna be a fun, old school, kind of cult movie edit. Quite a simple thing. I don’t know what we could do for ‘Poison Chalice’, really. We’ve got one really cool idea for ‘The Satanist’, actually. Like a one-shot, creepy take of just the singer prowling the backstreets of East London at night. I’ve got to find some sort of interesting location, like a Masonic temple or something, that he could go into at the end, but I think that could make a quite fun, entertaining video.
That’d be a cool idea. Like something that hasn’t really been done a whole lot.
M: Yeah, we want to do things that are more fresh rather than just the usual. I also think it’s important when you’re in a smaller band to put the band in the video if you can, because you’re trying to sell yourself as a live act. That’s how you make your money and everything. So generally, if you can, try to put the band in it performing. But I do think that idea would be a good one and quite achievable. So watch this space!
Other than Amulet, what are you listening to these days?
M: I’ve been listening to a lot of death metal for some reason. I DJ a lot, so, depending on where I go, I like to get into different styles. I’ve been getting into stuff I’ve never really gotten into in the past like Goreguts, Incantation, Suffocation. I never used to listen to those bands but I’m really enjoying them. And some Emperor, Inquisition. I didn’t really grow up with them. And there’s also a lot of new bands I think are really good, too. I’m doing the Live Evil Festival here, which is going to be in January. I shouldn’t really say, but some of the bands I’m excited about. I’ll hopefully get to play Hellish Crossfire from Germany, they’re a brilliant thrash band, and I do really like Eternal Champion and Riot City, Visigoth, and Savage Master, I think they’re all writing really good songs so I’m really enjoying a lot of these fresh classic heavy metal bands that are coming out now.
Yeah, there are definitely a few of them these days. Visigoth, like you said, and TIR from Italy, and Pulver. I think that traditional heavy metal right now is in pretty good hands.
M: It is! It’s really stepped up from even five, six years ago. [laughs] There definitely wasn’t as much quality around.
Maybe eventually like the 80s, almost!
M: Well, I wouldn’t go that far! I mean, it was insane. I’m still discovering old British bands. There were so many, there must have been like five hundred of those by like ’82. But, yeah, it’s going that way. I find it strange. I mean, why? There’s no money. [laughs] Why do they think this is a good idea, playing this? It’s brilliant, though. I love it. The more good bands in the scene, the better. It’s exactly what was needed. When we play gigs with, say, Visigoth, we sell out big venues. It’s really cool to see the possibilities of this type of music if you do deliver the sound that people want to listen to. So it really pushes us to up our game. I think the next Amulet album will be quite a bit bigger-sounding. We had to do this one like it is now, but the next one I think we’ll have heavier guitars, more reverb. It will be more commercial, in a sense. A bit more in-your-face. So hopefully that will appeal to people.
Speaking of a more commercial sound, how do you feel about more modern metal bands like, maybe, Sabaton or Battle Beast?
M: I just don’t really know much about it. It’s funny, because I was literally thinking today, “I should check out Sabaton,” because everybody’s talking about them right now. And then there’s Amon Amarth. I’ve never even listened to Amon Amarth. It’s crazy, right? I don’t know why. I’m not like a snob, you know, I just don’t have much time and I know the old-school stuff I like and because I’m in London I listen to bands that are coming up that are suitable to that more necro, old-school sound. But I checked out Amon Amarth when I was DJing and I thought it was pretty good! I like the vocals and it’s got a really fun tone. But I still have to get around to things like Sabaton.
But, generally, I used to not be into that whole modern production and heavy sound but I’ve kind of matured on it. It’s popular for a reason, you know, it’s what people want to listen to, probably. So I’ve been opening my mind to it. And especially DJing, I’d like to know what things are so that I can play it if someone asks and not just say, “Don’t have it! Pantera!” [laughs] It’s kind of a dick move. But we need bands like that to headline for when all the old bands die out. I’m assuming it’s going to be Sabaton, Rammstein, Ghost, whoever else is still alive.
Are there any bands in the space today that you draw inspiration from? I mean, the Manowar, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath influences are all pretty clear, but I’m talking more recent bands.
M: I do really like Helvetets Port. I don’t think I’d necessarily steal anything from them because they’ve got quite a distinct sound. But I like their lyrics as well and their vibe. Black Magic, an amazing band from Norway, are incredible. They’ve got that Show No Mercy Slayer-era sound mixed with a Eastern British vibe that’s really cool. I wish I could write as well as Jon does. So they’d be an inspiration in that way. We were inspired by how Antichrist did their production and their recordings. There are bits from a couple of bands today but none are a direct influence, I don’t think. I just play and riffs come out naturally. It just sounds the way it does with us.
But we did definitely go for a bit more of an epic Manowar vibe this time. We’re all big fans. I just think the songwriting is really good in Manowar. I quite like simple riffs pummeling your head without becoming tedious. As an inspiration we didn’t really talk about it but it’s evident in the songwriting. I think we’re all quite interested in the success of Visigoth, Riot City, Eternal Champion, and, like I said, for the next album you’ll see that we’re being inspired by their quite big productions, so you might see a bit more influence from the new bands coming through. I think we’ll use that super heavy reverb, really chunky guitar.
So I know you’re now with Dissonance Productions; you were with Century Media before. How is this new partnership for you guys?
M: It’s great. We’re really happy. Obviously we had a big label and big YouTube page and stuff like that but the broad strokes of the deal are exactly the same. We’ve still got really good PR, and we’ve got advertising, the financial deals are pretty much the same, they’re really supporting. And the fact that they’re based in the UK is really helpful. When we make a music video the boss of the whole company comes down to hangout and we go for drinks with him and they’re on the phone if you need them in like five minutes. They’re part of Plastichead Distrobution, which is a massive distribution company, and that’s really what you want, isn’t it? I think for a record label it’s just good to get it into shops. There’s probably no one better in the UK for getting it onto the webstores and into real record stores. So, if you want to buy the record in Europe, you can probably find it, which is nice to know.
For sure. I think it’s a bit important to be able to get your music into people’s hands.
M: Yeah. The only thing is when you put a YouTube video up on Century Media’s page, you get 25000 views within, like, a week, whereas with Dissonance we don’t really have that following. So it’s slightly more difficult to get interaction from YouTube and Facebook but other than that it’s good. They’re a great company, too. Nice people.
So you mentioned your Live Evil Festival earlier. How is that going? Is the lineup pretty much set?
M: Yeah, I’m kind of working on it right now but I think it’s pretty much there. I might have even booked too many bands but there are one or two that are still TBC. But, yeah, I’ve basically got a full, four-day weekend. I’m really happy with it. I’ve been really fussy this time and I think every band is really good. And there’s a good mix. Hardly any of the bands are from the UK. There are some, obviously, but it’s bands from all over the world and a big mix of stars from slightly doomy through to really necro black metal, a lot of good thrash and death and some epic heavy metal. I think it’s going to be really good fun.
It’s the first time we’ve ever done it in January so it’ll be like a winter-themed thing. There might even be a Thursday preshow, so it’ll be Thursday preshow, Friday preshow, Saturday festival with an afterparty until 3 am with the bands, Sunday until 3 am, [laughs] and then Monday we do a screening of maybe of the film Roctober Blood. So it’s quite the five-day party. It’s pretty intense. By the Tuesday I’m usually kind of hysterical but happy, you know. [laughs] It’s a lot of work.
Is it primarily you doing all of the organization or do you have any help with that?
M: I literally do almost all of it. I’m rigging up banners, I’m carrying amps, and I’m mostly helping out the bands. My good friend, Oscar, handles all of the financial stuff and a lot of the organization on that side of things, like the logistics, but I’m not sure if gonna help with this one or not. But this venue might deal with some of the pain of the bands and the fees and all that stuff so. I like to be hands-on, basically, and I like making sure the bands are happy and I like being busy and running around, sorting stuff out. That’s why I do it; it’s really good fun.
Plus I really like meeting all these new friends and bringing the bands together. Like, you have a festival, then five or ten years later these bands are still familiar and are still touring together because they met at the festival. It’s such a good way to invigorate a scene. So many positives come from it. I took a couple years off but I couldn’t stop forever.
Right. It’s also great to have as passionate as you in the heavy metal scene, especially where it’s not thriving like it is in places like Germany.
M: Yeah. And at least half the people come from outside the UK, which is fun.
Well, that pretty much covers everything I wanted to ask you, but is there anything you wanted to add?
M: Just thanks for taking the time talk to us and we appreciate the support! Never surrender!
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