“Prelude” is the first full length from Britain’s Wytch Hazel, and band that has been around for a while now, contributing a two song demo, an EP as well as a split single with Metal Squadron favourites Borrowed Time. The new album represents a big leap forward for the band, and is one of the pleasant surprises of the year for me personally. I got in contact with songwriter, guitarist and singer Colin Hendra, and this is what came out of an hour long conversation on the phone.
When you formed the band with Josh Winnard, you called yourself Jerusalem for a while
– Yeah, we did call ourselves Jerusalem at one point, but I think that was in the very early days before we really did anything at all. At that point we had decided we wanted to start a hard rock/heavy metal band and we were just throwing ideas around. Jerusalem? That sounds really cool, because it doesn’t sound really aggressive or anything like that. At the time, we were listening to bands like Dark Star, Pagan Altar and other NWOBHM-bands, and we felt we needed a name that fit that kind of approach. We thought Jerusalem was a good name, but with more folk and medieval influences coming into the music, we needed another name. Wytch Hazel, as we write it nowadays, with the old English spelling, kind of suits the more folk and magical elements we were going for.
According to my information you also used the regular spelling for awhile, and called yourself Witch Hazel…
– Yeah, we sort of liked the name, and when we saw theopportunity to use the old spelling, we thought that alternative was even better.
I mentioned Josh Winnard who is now in Dark Forest. Do you feel Wytch Hazel changed when he left?
– Actually, I think that Wytch Hazel had already changed anyway, I don’t think him leaving really changed things a lot. Josh is a very good guitar player,but the guy we got after him, was Mark Gatley, who was also a very solid. I think it’s really important to have a player with good timing and good rhythm so the band sounds really tight, and to be honest, if it just in terms of guitarist for guitarist, Josha and Mark are similar styled players. The biggest thing I noticed when he left, was that it feelt sad not having him in the band anymore. We’re good friends, so it was a shame we didn’t get to see each other at band practices and so on. That was probably the main thing for me. And then later down the line we had a drummer change as well, so I think the band has constantly been trying to move forward and improve on what we got, but as I said, the biggest thing with Josh, was not to have my mate around as much as I was used to.
I really like Josh in Dark Forest, and asks Colin to fill me in on how he contributed vocally to Wytch Hazel…
– Josh was doing mainly backing vocals with us. When we practiced songs, he was singing all the choruses, a lot of prechorus sections and also some mid sections. A lot of backing vocals really. We didn’t really have enough time to work on it back then, to fully develop it. Josh wasn’t doing any lead singing with us.
If you look back at the first demo, containing the songs “Surrender” and “Wytch Hazel”, how do you view it today?
– I look back and probably see quite a few little mistakes and things, but I am kind of glad we did what we did with it. The thing that is bothering me a bit, is that we had a cassette tape master, which was in a tape recorder machine that got stolen from me, so we can’t actually remaster the demo. I think it would be nice to be able to emaster it, because I think it’s got some charm because it’s so rough around the edges, and the playing in itself is okay too. I played everything on it myself, the drums, guitars, vocals and bass, and I am quite happy with my performance, even though the bass guitar doesn’t cut through very much. It’s mainly the production and the sound quality, I wish I could have done differently, and better.
I didn’t really feel the EP you released independently a year later, “The Truth”, was a sufficient step forward. Do you?
– Probably not. We really hoped it would be a step forward, but the thing is, there were more tracks to record compared to the demo, and at that time we were studying at the university and were doing it inbetween our studies. We certainly hoped it would turn out better, and we used more microphones and more tracks, but in the end, “The Truth” ended up not being any better in sound quality, compared to the demo. Don’t misunderstand me, I think the EP is okay, but because there are more tracks, there are a few mistake I wish I have heard, rectified and sorted out back then. So no, I don’t really feel it was a step forward either, the overall quality was pretty much the same as on the demo. “The Truth” was recorded on the same kind of device as well. The songs are a bit different though, but probably on the same level. I liked what we did with the acoustic track (“Throw Downe Your Sword”)on the EP. Not that I wanted to go down a route of just doing an acoustic song, but I liked the fact that we had a different kind of song in the form of an acoustic track.
When this interview was conducted, in medio March, the first feedback on “Prelude” was reaching the band, and Colin mentions a couple of things that have been pretty satisfying for him to hear…
– Lots of people have been telling their friends about the album, so we have been helped a lot by word of mouth. Some people are also saying that the songwriting is good, and songwriting is one of the most important things to me. It’s just what I do, I can’t help but writing songs. So when people compliments the songwriting, it means a lot. I spend pretty much all my free time writing songs. That’s probably the most satisfying thing so far. The thing with Wytch Hazel is that I think some people may look at us and think we’re a heavy metal band,but when they hear us, it’s clear we’re not your obvious heavy metal band, and not what you expect. I think it’s nice that people are still interested when the music isn’t as obvious or a band isn’t singing about heavy metal, Satan or going out. It’s cool when people are willing to give it a change nevertheless.
What is the purpose of the lyrics in your music?
– Wytch Hazel primarly exists so we can have fun and other people can enjoy it as well. We can enjoy gigging and recording, and other people in turn, can enjoy that. The lyrics however, are more of personal thing. The band is a creative outlet, and I use it to express my own views. The way I construct the lyrics isn’t necessarily directed towards an audience, it’s more like some sort of self reflection. Each song might tell a different story, or express a different view or reflect something I’ve gone through, something I’ve been thinking about or something I think is important. There might be some reoccuring themes, as the feeling in some of the songs are quite similar. You know, life isn’t always easy, so I think a lot of the themes are battle themes, and that’s quite metaphorical. The lyrics are quite personal really, and as I write all of them, they’re not the message of the band. Were not saying this or that, and they’re not that directed and specific, but can be open to interpretation, which is absolutely fine of course.
People were quite fast to label Wytch Hazel as a Christian band, especially after “The Truth” and the opening tune “Proclaim” which contained the line: “Praise be to God in the highest/All glory to God in the highest.” Is Wytch Hazel a Christian band, or a band with a Christian message?
– It depends on what you mean by a Christian band, because obviously people will have different ideas of what a Christian band would be. The most obvious example for me would be Stryper in the eighties. A Christian band? I think the way to define that, is that all the members are Christians. When we talk about Christians, we talk about the Protestants, we’re not talking about Roman Catholics, which is kind of a different religion really. Is it Warlock, this American band?
Warlord I guess…
– Ah, well…they’re very much like a Protestant…Church of England, would be an example maybe, and then they sing very overtly and obvious Christian lyrics. In Wytch Hazel, we have myself, a Christian, and then we have Roman Catholic on the bass, and we don’t share all of the same religious views, as well as a drummer who is kind of agnostic met with atheist tendencies. So when it comes to this point, we got a variety, and the lyrics, they are not Stryper-lyrics. So, if we would categorize it in the same way we categorize Stryper, I would say no, we’re not a Christian band. People talk about a Christian facebook or a Christian beer company. I think it’s a bit fake really. In a band, there are Christians, just like there are Christians in the world with their viewpoints. The way to influence isn’t to say: This band is now Christian. The way to influence is to say: I am just going to keep doing what I am doing and hold on to what I believe. I don’t like the idea of being a Christian band, but I can sort of see, when I write the lyrics I do, and express the views I do, why people would think we are. It’s all a bit complicated really.
Listening to “Prelude”, the songs seem to flow a lot better than in the past. Colin is fast to explain how…
– I think we probably rehearsed these songs a lot more, so that’s the big thing. We also had a lot of advise from the label, from Will Palmer, about how much we needed to practice. Studio preparations were really important, because we only had a week. That was one aspect, the other thing is that we went into an actual studio this time (Foel, Wales), not just a rehearsal room with a cassette recorder. It was a full recording studio with all the necessary equipment of course, and the fact that we could turn the amps up as loud as we needed to to get the desired sound, was also important. We couldn’t necessarily do that with the demo. So, we had a lot more freedom, and the equipment was so much better. A third aspect would be that we also had a producer, Ed Turner, who had a lot of suggestions. He actually simplified a lot things, there are places where I was using my voice in a way that was kind of like a lead instrument, like a guitar or something, where he suggested that I should simplify things and make it more like a sing along track. I am very grateful for his suggestions, particularly with the vocals, because listening to the stuff now, it actually sounds a lot better. I was satisfied with the songwriting, but didn’t realize that I was overcomplicating the singing patterns. You can add an extra two notes, but sometimes two notes don’t add anything extra. You can take them away and keep the most important parts of the melody, and its just as good, if not better. Ed did a lot of refining and knew how to get a good guitar sound as well. We had a great engineer too. The sound is far, far better than in the past.
It’s no secret that what we hear in Wytch Hazel, comes more or less from the brain of Colin. Are the other members involved in the creative process in any way?
– There isn’t always enough time to start the song writing process by meeting a band member and say: Let’s write a song together. We mainly use rehearsals to prepare for gigs. So with the time limit, it’s difficult to get together to write songs. It would be great to write songs with the band, an it’s not something I rule out at all, but we all got jobs and commitments, so time is precious really. I spend all my spare time writing songs, and I really enjoy it. My first instrument is drums, so I drummed and demoed all the songs, and Jack (Spencer) when learnt them, ended up putting his own spin and style on the songs. In fact, I would say that he has kind of written certain parts and added lots of things. In rehearsal, when the song is not quite finished, I tend to ask Neil (Corkery), our bassist about all kind of things, he has got a lot of classical knowledge and music theory knowledge in general. I am a guitar teacher myself, but if there are things that are quite complicated, and I cant work them out, I tend to ask him. What will suit here, or what cord is this? He really knows what he is talking about. He has written some stuff as well. For example, in the first track, “Freedom Battle”, there is this guitar pattern that kind of rises up, as the vocals are getting higher, before this sort of high pitched falsetto. Neil came up with the part before the drums kick in. He has got a few little bits in there, and all the bass lines as well, he writes them off the guitar parts.
The new album contains a couple of rerecordings. As I have mentioned already, the band hymn, ”Wytch Hazel, was also on the demo, while the track “Fight” originally featured on the “The Truth” EP.
– As this is our first real album, I thought it would be a good idea to redo our title song. It’s a good singalong track, and it kind of gets the band name in people’s minds. A lot of people come up to me and sing the chorus of that song, so it kind of feels good for exposure. If it helps them remember the band name and passing it on, it can’t be a bad thing. I really enjoy all the parts in the song, and enjoy playing the guitar solos. And then “Fight” really fits with the theme of the album. We actually rerecorded the track “Surrender” again, we got it as a sort of bonus track, particularly if a Japanese label picks up the album. We have already put it on two other releases, so if it happens, it will be the third time. Who knows, we might keep recording that song. Haha!
As you spoke about recording the album as early as in 2013, is the album soon to be released pretty much the same album you wanted to record back then, or have you added new songs as they have been written?
– Most of the other songs were written in 2013. “Dark Ages” was written probably a year, a year and half ago. We were trying to learn them and record them, the whole thing was a whole big process really, that lasted for years . We thought we were gonna record the album for High Roller Records, then they kind of turned around and said: We don’t think we can do it anymore. I am not sure what happened, but we only corresponded via email, and there was a little bit of a language barrier, so communication was a bit difficult. I was trying to ask about the digital distribution of the album, and the deal ended up differently than we first thought it would. I said: Can we get more of a clear deal? You know, the contract was only one page long, and there were no details there. I asked for more details, and then they suddenly said they were not gonna go through with it anyway.
In the end, the band ended up on Bad Omen Records instead.
– I just got a message off Will Palmer. There was a time, it must have been in 2012 I think, where he asked what do you think about signing, but that was probably when he was working for Rise Above Records…Yeah, I think he was talking about signing me to that label. A the time, we were finishing university and I wasn’t sure about whether everyone wanted to stay in the band or not. I had to tell him we couldn’t commit to a deal at that point in time. I got married that year as well, so there was a lot big things happening. In retrospect, I think it was the right descision and that signing to an independent label was much better for us. I think it was two years ago now, that he approached me again. He just messaged me and asked if we could talk on the phone, and then we talked through it and we got a record deal.
Listening to the album, even though the influences are obvious, it really sounds fresh. Is originality important for you? Do you try to sound different from other contemporary acts?
– There are times when I have tried to write in a way that sounds like someone else, but I find it really difficult. At times I really want to write a fast paced song, maybe a little bit like Diamond Head or something similar. Unfortunately it just doesn’t happen, it doesn’t work. When you are writing and try to come up with something that really sticks, there are always lot of experimenting where you try to land an idea, something that really works. When I am doing the faster things or trying to imitate someone else, I end up never writing anything. It only works when I tend to let the songwriting happen, and stumble upon things. I don’t deliberately try to sound original, it just happens. I just experiment and come up with something I think sounds good. It probably sounds original, because it’s my style of playing. I have tried to teach certain parts I come up with to guitarists and they say they don’t really understand what I am doing. Maybe it’s a personal style of playing? Also, I think one of the unique factors is that I write at least fifty percent of the songs on piano. I come up with a lot of ideas on piano, then I try them on guitar, or I might come up with something on guitar, then try it on piano and change it. If I was to sit down with an electric guitar and try to write songs, I probably wouldn’t work for me. After about half an hour or 45 minutes, I simply have to go on to a different instrument, sit on the piano or play an acoustic guitar, or play the drums to get some rhythms. I have a space I can do that, were I teach music lessons. It’s a bit like a makeshift studio now, it’s a really good space to write things.
Colin agrees that the fact that he can handle all instruments contributes in making the songwriting a little different.
– Yeah, I think so. I spend some time translating piano parts onto guitar. It probably makes it a bit more unique, as it isn’t a guitarpart written on guitar. Also, when I am writing, I play a chord then sing something. The vocal part I am improvising might end up being a guitar line or even a bass line. Because it’s something that is not written on guitar, it doesn’t always sound like your standard guitar part. I am really into rhythm, so when I am writing on guitar, rhythm is a big aspect of it. I think about how to make it interesting, how the guitar relate to the drums, or how the vocals work with the drums? It’s about deciding what not to put in as well as what to put in. The ability to play many instruments has definitely given me some different ideas, and maybe a unique approach.
Is it important for you to show some of your personal musical influences in your music? Listening to the album, there are parts reminding me of Jethro Tull, Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy, bands that I know you care a lot about.
– To be hones, I have listened to those three more than any other, so yeah, Wytch Hazel was always going to sound a bit like that, as I really admire their sounds. Jethro Tull is a really good example of the sort of thing I like, even though the music is progressive, the particular albums I really like, sometimes there are parts that aren’t really that complicated. The music is there to listen to, for the musical enjoyment, it’s not a technical excersise. You know, some progressive music can sound a bit too much for the ears, and doesn’t sound, at least to me, musical and interesting. Sometimes a simpler part can sound better, and I think Ian Anderson understands that perfectly. For example the track, “The Rover” from “Heavy Horses”, the main part is really nice, it’s just three chords and then like a nice lead part over the top. He is not afraid to do something like that, and it really works! The rhythm is interesting, I like that. It’s not that difficult, come with some simple chords,but with an interesting rhythm, and then you got an extra part that really gels. The chords and the melody, the combination of those two and the two clashing rhythms make an interesting part. I think I am quite influenced by that sort of songwriting. With regards to Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy, their music isn’t that complicated either, and it’s a combination of different sounds.
It seems like you are more a fan of albums like “Songs From The Wood” and “Heavy Horses” and than more progressive works like for instance “Thick As A Brick” or “A Passion Play”?
– I kind of like everything really, even the album “A” from the eighties. When it comes to a lot of progressive music, I am really amazed at the complexity and a lot of the playing is really, really good. There are simply lots and lots to listen to. Gentle Giant is a good example, but when it comes to Gentle Giant, I really can’t listen to their music for that long. It’s another story with Jethro Tull, there is a lot of complex and great playing there as well, but I never get bored of them. And yeah, because I am into folk, I really like his folk odyssey, including “Stormwatch as well. Those three albums, the trilogy, I really like the style, but all of his other stuff is really good as well. I really enjoy watching live footage of Jethro Tull. In fact, I rather watch a liveshow than listening to an album, but of course I got all of his records. “Stand Up” is really good as well!
In my opinion, your music is certainly genuine enough to stand on its own feet, but it looks like you are also building a strong image with the visual presentation and stage clothes as well?
– Yeah, definitely. I think that obviously the music is the most important thing, and this is not a fashion show, but I feel…its difficult to describe, but I think its important if you’re putting on a show, to wear the clothes that is appropriate to the performance. You got to look the part, smart and uniform. For me, it doesn’t make sense at all not to look uniform. I am used to this from all the classical performances, brazz bands or competitions I have done.So I thouht: If we’re gonna look smart for a show, what would suit the style? What’s the the theme of the band?I knew that I didn’t want to go on stage with jeans and a t-shirt. Or if we were all wearing the same colored jeans and t-shirts that is an example of uniform. You know the way Jethro Tull comes up with lots of different costumes? I like that. It suits the style, because the music is so up and down. White is a good colour, for our music, I think, and I found these shirts in this charity/vintage shop, and thought they looked great, as they had a bit of a Robin Hood-style look to them. The boots Ian Anderson wears are really cool. I bought them first I think, and I thought I looked great in those boots. We got a couple of pairs of those, and think the white shirts work well with the folk image. It’s not like were going for a particular era, like the 1500s or anything, were just going for something we think works. As we are also on a low budget, we’re not going to get our outfits designed.
I was watching some of the Wytch Hazel live clips on YouTube recently , and was quite impressed by your vocal performance. The vocals sound just as good, if not better than in the studio…It seems you are comfortable singing and playing guitar?
– I wasn’t always like that. At first I found it difficult. I was in a band before Wytch Hazel , called Lake Of Fire. Our current drummer, Jack was in that band as well, cause I went to school with him. It was a school band, and we played like a modern Iron Maiden-style sound. At one point, we had a female vocalist. I had written a couple of songs and we had a few practices and I believe she turned up to one of them. We realized that she was not interested and that I would have to sing. I never really had sung properly before. I still have some early recordings, and they are awful. I had never really learned to sing, so it was learning to sing while trying to be in a band and write songs. It was a very steep learning curve. It wasn’t long after that I said that I can’t sing and play guitar, so I went looking for a vocalist. I then went to a really good, local music shop. The guy said to me: Look, at the moment you will find it difficult to both play guitar and sing, but trust me, you will find it very difficult to get a vocalist for a heavy metalal. Also, just keep singing and playing, and it will come. His advice really influenced me, and after a while I just go used to it. That’s when I started to get good at playing and singing. I got used to it, and the drumming background really helped me with the coordination, you know, to do different things at once. It really helps. There are some bits were I still have to say: Can you play lead here? For example I can’t handle playing the lead part in “Surrender” and then sing “Surrender”. When it comes to the singing itself, I had a few singing lessons. I had a couple of different singing tuitions tapes and CDs that I use. It’s really important for me to varm up and to be relaxed. The recording of Brofest for instance, is a gig that was really well organized, a good gig, a nice foldback, so I could hear myself and a really good backstage room. I ended up singing quite well for that video. That’s really important for a singer, to hear yourself and to be able relax. I guess all the elements came together for that gig. I use like an earplug now for the gigs were we play without foldback, and I think its important to put on a good performance, so I always warm up and make sure I can hear myself. Of course it’s important to make strong albums, but its also important to be good live. I rehearse a lot in the car, and always make sure I have learnt my lyrics. It doesn’t feel good to forget lyrics, and I make sure I can sing the songs comfortably. Then it’s mostly about focusing on the guitar really.
Wytch Hazel has also done some acoustic shows, and Colin feels the material translates really well to to his format.
– I rearrange the songs to play them differently. I enjoy the shows, they don’t have the same power and are not as full of energy, but the songs translate well, particularly if I have already written them on acoustic guitar to begin with. I am quite surprised actually how well it works, usually you wouldn’t expect heavy metal to translate into acoustic. I’ve done piano versions of a lot of songs too, and they work great then as well.
Do you reach another audience when you go acoustic?
– The shows we have played, has been a heavy metal show in Manchester and another one in London, so we have only done two acoustic shows so far. I sometimes play on my own locally I live near Lancaster, and Lancaster is really good for live music. I have done some shows and some small festivals, with Wytch Hazel songs, and when I do those kind of things, I definitely reach a different audience. There are a lot of people who are not interested in listening to the band or to rock music, but want a solo album from me. To be honest, I am too busy with the band right now, and certainly prefer to play in a band, but at some point I will probably come up with a solo album. It’s more like an extra hobby, the band is a hobby too, but I take it more seriously, so that’where my priority is right now.
As already mentioned, you performed at Brofest in 2013, a festival that mainly celebrates NWOBHM-acts. Do you see a significant link between Wytch Hazel and these bands?
– I think initially, when we started the band, we wanted to do a little bit of a NWOBHM- thing, and especially as we recorded the first stuff on the tape recorder, we were expecting it to sound like that. I didn’t know a lot about recording, but I knew I didn’t want to record it on a lap top. I wanted it to be a bit different, and it would be nice to do some analog recording, and the only thing we had was this tape recorder. It gave us an old sound, and we kind of expected it to sound like a NWOBHM-band. But as things developed, I was more interested in the seventies rock, and that really shone through. I really love heavy metal though, because it has the energy to take the sound to the heights and put the necessary power behind it. A lot of seventies rock does as well, not necessarily on the albums, but if you watch a live footage of Deep Purple or Thin Lizzy, there is a lot of power and you can easily imagine being at the show. That’s proper hard rock music to me! Heavy metal is almost too much, kind of over the top sometimes. I like that, but I wanted to go down more of a seventies route with Wytch Hazel, to create hard rock with heavy metal tendencies. To be honest, there are a few of these NWOBHM-bands that I don’t think are that good really. Their demos are a bit sketchy, a bit like us maybe. Haha! There are some bands that are really obscure, and many of them are not that good, including some of the Brofest-bands. On the other hand, there are a few I really like, for instance Bashful Alley. I think they’re great, but I kind of lost track because I spend so much time listening to seventies rock, folk and medieval and things like that. So I am not really up to date with the obscure Brofest-bands.
I know you looked for some musicans to add to your lineup last year. Whats the lineup situation right now? Are you a trio looking to expand to a quartet again?
– We are just auditioning at the moment. We got a handful of guitarists, four or five of them, but we are confident we found the right person. We’re just going through the process, meeting up with the guy to go through the parts and we’ve done a couple of rehearsals as well. So yeah, we’re pretty much on the road to be a real lineup. We are promoting the album, but Matt who isn’t really in the band anymore, is stepping in for the current gigs until we find a guitarist. We don’t really want to be like: We’re looking for a guitarist…Partly because we think we found someone, but it also sounds a little bit negative. We have released an album, but we’re still looking for someone. We really want to focus on the album now, and it doesn’t always sound so good in terms of press.
The only thing I don’t like about “Prelude” is the cover art. Colin, it appears, enjoys it more than me…
– I like the fact that it’s very different. There is also a positive vibe to it, but it’s also got a magical sort of thing to it, at least stylistically. The artwork really suits the magical element in our music. When I write stuff, I think it sounds otherworldly and slightly magical. I suppose it’s not the best concept for an album cover though. It’s really difficult. What sort of thing could we do? We didn’t want a big battle theme as it would look too cartoony, and its also way too obvious. I think the idea is to have a sober and empty cover because something is to come. It’s a prelude, so its not full of things, but rather waiting for something to happen. It’s not your standard heavy metal cover at all. Slightly seventies looking maybe?
I guess you already got new material in the making. Where do you want to take Wytch Hazel next?
– I’ve got quite a few songs written, cause we did record “Prelude” last March. I’ve got maybe nine or ten songs, many of them are what I would call finished. I don’t think there is really any new direction to the stuff, but I suppose the songwriting just develops. I come up with different ideas or just new ideas. When it comes to the songwriting, it’s very experimental. You just come up with an idea and go with it. I wasn’t really going for a new album, a new approach or a new place. It’s just nine or ten songs of the same style. I am really looking forward to recording the second album, but there are no plans for the recording yet. At the moment I need to get a new laptop to demo the songs, as they are not demoed yet. As you understand it’s early days. I do have a two weeks holiday coming up when I can do some recordings. When we start recording the songs, we will see what’s not finished or what needs to be done differently. The album will not be out this year, but maybe the end of next year. A lot of is depending on the record label as well, if they have any money left. Haha!