I recently called singer Mark J. Dexter from Dexter Ward to speak about the band’s new album “Rendezvous With Destiny”. Since it was the first time the two of us had a chance to speak together, I started by asking Mark some personal questions, the first about his experience as a singer.
– I started singing around 1995 or 1996. I was born in 1975, so I started pretty late. Earlier, I had been playing bass guitar for three or four years. I was playing in a power progressive metal band in Italy. I live ten kilometers from the city of Venice, and this band was my first experience together with some friends. The other guys were writing the material, and I had no input on the musical direction of the band, and after a while, I realized this wasn’t exactly the type of music I wanted to write or play. Around 95/96 I bought a guitar and started composing simple riffs and wrote some classic metal songs. This was the way I started singing, as I didn’t have a singer to sing the songs I made. My first influence was Bruce Dickinson, which was my favorite singer at the time, and still is in my top three. Then I really liked Eric Adams as well, as I was really big on Manowar back then. Rob Halford from Judas Priest and J.D. Kimball from Omen have to be mentioned too. As strange as it may sound, I discovered Omen and some other underground bands before I discovered the likes of Running Wild and Judas Priest. Of course, I can’t sing as good as these titans, but I was very much inspired by them.
Continuing to speak about Mark’s position as a vocalist, I have noticed that Dexter Ward has done several cover versions, both at live shows as well as on their albums. Are these tracks challenging for him to sing, or does the band choose songs that they know will fit well with his voice and ability?
– Some of the covers we have played were easier for me, for example the Warlord-track “Winds Of Thor”. The range, as well as the style, were quite good for me. The song is very epic, and I like to sing the epic choruses. It’s very natural to me. Some other tracks, for instance Anvils “Free As The Wind” was different and definitely a challenge. I am not 100 percent into that style of vocals, but I tried my best, and hope I brought justice to the song, at least not total disgrace. Most of the time I try to challenge myself not to copy the original singer, but to sing the song in my style, but I also bring some small elements I normally don’t use in my own songs. To sing other singer’s parts and melodies is definitely a challenge.
When we conducted this interview the band was about to perform at the Keep It True Festival in Germany, the first time for the band, even though Mark has perfomed there two times before with Battleroar. He describes the chance to peform there as something special, as most of the legendary underground bands that he started listening to, have performed there. He also views performing at the festival as different to playing for instance in Greece.
– Keep It True is mostly about meeting friends and seeing bands, and when I am there, I act more like a fan than a musician. When we play in Athens for example, either supporting a bigger band, or doing a headline slot, I put myself more in the role of a musician. This is the mentality I have.
The new album, “Rendezvous With Destiny” was released at Keep It True, an appearance which saw the band presenting material from the album that most people probably hadn’t had a chance to hear yet.
– The tracks we play, are the ones we had already put on YouTube, and made available for our fans to listen to. The title track, was also released in a different version on an EP we put out last year. “These Metal Wings” was the first one we presented online from the album, and we have also made a lyric video for the song. “Stone Age Warrior” is an epic track, that we have also uploaded to YouTube with a collage of live clips from a couple of shows when we were supporting Warlord in Athens. We didn’t have real footage of us performing this particular track, but we synchronized the older clips with the song and ended up with this new video, well not a real video, but at least a way to make people hear this new song and have something interesting to look at.
It sounds like you have a strategy to give people a chance to learn the songs before you go out and perform them?
– Well, we didn’t have it as a plan, but it turned out to be convenient for us to do it this way. “These Metal Wings” is one of the catchiest and strongest songs on the album. It also has some good melodies, making it a strong single, in my opinion. That’s why we decided to play it live.
The chorus reminds me a little bit of Jag Panzer, and there are some Iron Maiden-influences there as well…
-When I wrote the song, it was different instrumentally, and in the place of the chorus I had put another chord progression. I was also thinking about “Max Destroyers” as the title. I was repeating the chorus over this weird chord progression, and it simply wasn’t working. The verse was good, the bridge was really cool, but this strange chorus wasn’t working at all. I took a couple of weeks off and was working on something else instead. I then did a brand new chorus from scratch, and I started singing in a way that reminded a little of Jag Panzer, both the melody and the style. So, the chorus, which I believe is the best part of the song, wasn’t really part of the song to begin with. That’s the funny story about “These Metal Wings”.
It’s been something like five years since you released the first album, “Neon Lights”. It might be too long for a band in today’s market.
– For a younger band which is touring and spending a lot of time on their music, live shows and career, it would be too long. For Dexter Ward, it’s just about right. We have our day jobs, and our families to take care of. Some of us have got married and had babies since the first album was released. If I was 18 years old and had a band, I would like to do an album every year. Album and tour, album and tour, just like in the old days. Nowadays, we do it the way we have to do it, remember that we also live far away from each other. I live in Italy while the rest of the guys are in Greece. We are pretty busy too, so there is not much time for music. I was a little afraid that people had forgotten about us, and that we would have to start from scratch again in our attempt to make a little buzz in the underground scene. However it seems like the guys who enjoyed the first album were just waiting for the new one.
Do you think it’s easier for younger bands these days? Some bands with members in the early twenties seem to be touring more or less constantly.
– I think it’s very hard for everyone these days. It’s not only about the age of the band members, but if you look around, the problems are due to the market. Okay, so the vinyl market might look a little bit better right now, but the CD-market is almost dead and even the big names have to find alternative ways to make an income. Look at Iron Maiden, for instance. I guess they didn’t love the beer that much, but even they have find new ways to earn money, because you don’t get money from record sales anymore. I have some friends, great musicians in great bands, but when they approach a label, the label doesn’t offer them money to record an album. The label just want the master, and tell the bands that “if we like it we are going to sign you, and then we can speak about money”. Record labels, especially the smaller ones, simply can’t pay for an album production anymore. That’s a pity, because then you also set the bar very low for the sound quality of the albums. You can’t hire a producer and you can’t pay for sufficient studio time and equipment, so you do as much as you can do at home. Maybe you record the guitars at home, and re-amp them in the studio if you are lucky, or maybe you use some plugins you have on your own PC. It has become more of a home recording situation, opposed to the eighties where people were recording in a studio. Maybe the sound quality wasn’t that good all the time, but you could at least hear it was a full band playing in the studio. It was a different type of vibe for the recordings. To go back to your questions, being young is no drawback. Take a band like Enforcer for instance, of course it is easier for them. They can do things properly, tour properly and dedicate the proper time to what they’re doing. Still they have to work damn hard, maybe even harder than they would have done back in the eighties. Right now, the market is really fucked up. Then again, even with Battleroar, when we were more active, we were only playing seven or eight concerts a year. We were doing a new album every three years, so I have never tried the real band life. Maybe I am not the best person to ask?
It many ways it also seems easier for bands from Western and Northern Europe than bands from Greece and Italy.
– I think that we have a lot of talent in our countries. I am friends with some of them, others I just know through recordings or mutual friends here in Italy, I know Guido from Axevyper and the guys from Rosae Crucis for instance. There is a lot of talent indeed, so the problem is not the bands, it’s more of a cultural thing. In our countries, there was never a lot of respect for rock music, please note that I am speaking about rock here, not heavy metal. When I started listening to heavy metal, you couldn’t really go out wearing your t-shirts or leather jacket. I was doing it, but I was more or less alone. I still am by the way. For some things, it’s like we still live in the sixties. We haven’t evolved a single bit, and we don’t invest in culture or in art anymore. In Italy, whenever our politicians have to cut expenses, they make cuts in the culture. Schools or museums. At school you have one or two hours with music, but they don’t make you choose your instrument, or try to engage you in a charming way to make you understand the potential or talent you might have. They give you a flute, for god’s sake! I understand it’s a cheap instrument, which most people can afford, but how can you engage a child with a flute? Think about what a child could do with a small electronic keyboard or a small guitar. In Italy we’re not ready for this, in other countries, from what I hear, the situation is a bit different. Some of the northern countries have a more stable government than we have.
Your guitarist Manolis, describes you as a very creative and productive person that that can come up with two or three songs a week.
– Let’s say that Manolis probably exaggerated a bit. I can’t write three songs per week. The songwriting nowadays is different compared to when we started. When we started, I was writing on my own, being the only composer. Throughout my Battleroar years, I had written a good number of songs. Some of them were in the epic metal style, and we used them for Battleroar, but most of them were more straight forward, classic heavy metal, and we couldn’t put them on the Battleroar-albums, because they would give the band a different direction. I would definitely have liked to put them on there, but it in the end it generated a conflict within the band. I understood that, just stepped back and we ended up not using them. It was a good number of songs, about twenty I guess, so we used some of them for the EP and the first album. For “Rendezvous With Destiny”, I wrote most of the stuff, but the arrangements were a team effort. I sent the guys the demos, complete demos, where I play guitar, not the leads though, program the drums, play the bass and sing. I am not a good guitar player, but can do chords, simple riffs and the main structure. I also produce the demo. Compared to the process that lead to “Neon Lights”, the guys changed a lot of things this time around, and they changed it for the better. Somehow the arrangements feel brand new to me. The original idea is there, the melodies are there, but the drum arrangements for instance, are different. Some parts are thrown away, and some parts are added. I can write songs and they are like a one man demo, but when I send them to the band, they become Dexter Ward-songs. Everyone helps developing them. We have different influences in the songs, for example you can find some Pink Floyd-influences in Akis’ solos. I am not a Pink Floyd-fan myself, but he is. The same goes for what Jon (bass) or Stelios, the drummer, do on the album. In this sense, “Rendezvous With Destiny” is much more of a team effort. Also, for this album, Akis wrote a song on his own, called “Knights Of Jerusalem”. I just helped with the lyrics. It was important to me to finally be in a band where people are writing and giving advice for arrangements. I am very proud of this album, and we’re a real band right now! Given the fact that we’re living in different countries, we normally haven’t got the luxury to get together in a studio or a rehearsal room to write a song.
I think it was Manolis that said quite early in the process that this new album would turn out different compared to the first one, is that due to the changes you just described?
– Yeah, I think so. Since we finished recording the first album, we have had some of the songs on this new album in demo versions, but it took us a lot of time figuring out which ones to use. And when we found out at last, we didn’t like the way they sounded. That’s why we took a fresher approach, and cut and added some new things. For example, the song “Fighting For The Cross”, was originally called “New Destiny”. It had different lyrics, a different structure and a different chorus. The main riff and the bridge were the same, but everything else was different. The song didn’t represent the sound we wanted for the new album, so we reworked it completely and changed the title. I don’t think “New Destiny” is a particularly strong title either, and we already had the title track containing the word “destiny”. The song was called “New Destiny” because we wanted to do something new for the band, to go a little in a new direction, meaning that we could all play a major role in the development of the songs. This is the idea we based this new album upon.
Mark also pays tribute to the producer the band has worked with this time around, Thimios Krikos, the guitarist from Inner Wish.
– He has a studio in Athens calle Devasoundz , and he helped us a lot. Not only with the production which sounds a lot more powerful than on the last album, but also with the arrangements. It was something I was really looking forward to, because I am not really very experienced in terms of working in a studio and deciding with other people how to arrange a song. Thimios had some very nice ideas, and even though he wouldn’t say: You have to do this or that, he was giving me some useful feedback. You know, things like: Maybe you could come up with something better for this harmony, or you should play this part two times instead of four. It’s nice to have a voice outside of the band that gives a professional opinion. In some cases, we agreed and listened to his advice, in some we didn’t, but it’s still important to me to have this kind of figure, a producer. We never had it in Battleroar, and we didn’t have one on the first Dexter Ward-album. For the third Dexter Ward-album, I would like to have a close relationship with a producer. It’s simply essential if you want a professional sounding album.
I recently saw Manolis singling out “Stone Age Warrior” from the new album as the best song you have written so far. Do you agree?
– Yeah, he told me too. All the songs I write, are like my children, and I can’t choose one or the other. Every song was written at a specific moment in time, and have a specific meaning for me. “We Are Dexter Ward ” and “New Destiny” came from around the time I got married and moved to a small apartment with my wife. They were quite bad times, the marriage was a good thing of course, but the apartment, 35 square meters, was so small I simply didn’t have a place to play, sing or record. For a couple of years I wasn’t doing anything, or I was recording, but the only things I could do, were the main riffs for those two songs. It was a very bad period for me, as I couldn’t express my creativity. I had to record those demos at a very low volume, I was singing like I was whispering, because I was at the first floor and my neighbors under and over me were fighting with me over the noise. The other guys wanted those two songs on the new album, I wouldn’t have chosen them to be honest, but the other members really liked them. So sometimes, I guess light can come out even from the darkest moments. Getting back to your question, I also think that “Stone Age Warrior” is one of my best compositions, and one of Dexter Wards best tracks so far. The song came out the day I bought a keyboard. It was a midi controller basically. It doesn’t produce any sound, you have to connect it to a sound card on the PC. I wanted to start learning and playing a little bit to add something to a few tracks. It all started from there, I began to play some chords the same day I came back from the store. And then I played some guitar an tried singing some lines. With this song specifically, I wanted to try to recapture the feelings I had when I started singing, and first joined Battleroar. I didn’t want to make a Battleroar-song, I just wanted to feel free again, to go back in time, to a moment where I had less responsibilities. At the time, I was living with my parents. I wasn’t doing anything basically, just working, coming back and playing guitar. I had a lot of time to listen to music and to explore my interest in music and to develop myself as a musician. Now I can’t do these things anymore, so I tried to write a song with that mindset. This is the way the song was born. Also, the lyrics are the ones a child could write, because there is a part of the song were they say: “A shield carved in the shell of a carnivorous tortoise”. Then there is the next part: “A lance he plunged in the venom of a spider queen”. It’s very exotic, but it could have come from a child that has seen some fantasy movie on TV. There is no deep meaning, just something really childish and simple, but not childish in a bad way. Childish like the heart of every heavy metal kid should be. For heavy metal, I believe you don’t have to think too much, you just have to put out what you have in your heart. Nowadays most heavy metal songs are played great and produced great, but they have no real heart. You can’t really feel the heart of the songs. There are nice riffs and melodies, but no heart. For this song, I wanted to be able to connect myself with my inner heavy metal child.
The song “We Are Dexter Ward” is a bit different, with some pretty distinct hard rock influences. What was the idea behind it?
– There are a couple of things I would like to say about that song. Musically speaking, it’s a quite straight forward hard rock song, hard rock in the vein of for example Saxon or Judas Priest. To me it’s like the more commercial songs of these acts meeting something like Dokken. However, I only use these bands as general comparisons. I would never associate myself with such great acts. I think the main riff in that song is in this style, but the lyrics were actually written shortly after me and Manolis left Battleroar. It’s more like an expression of our feelings at the time. For example, there is a line that says: “We got to break free on wings of light, cause we are Dexter Ward”. We just had to get to a situation again where we were free to write what we wanted to write. There is another line: “Paying their dues for too much time, metal systems overloaded”. This expresses what we felt at the time, we just needed some artistic freedom. So in “We Are Dexter Ward”, everyone can find the meaning they want and relate to the song on different levels, but for us it was like a cry for freedom. To sing and play exactly what is in our hearts. Compared to the original demo, we found ourselves recording the song with an arrangement that was more hard rock than we expected. The intention was for the song to come out a little more ballsy, a little heavier, but it just came out this way, and we liked the balance in the track. It’s different from the other songs, but it’s very well done. Also, even our favorite bands always had some more commercial and catchier songs on their albums.
With “Ballad Of The Green Berets” the band has included what seems like cover song on the album. But is it really a cover version?
– It came basically from the movie, “The Green Berets” with John Wayne. The first time I heard the song, was a more orchestral version which you can find in this movie. I am a fan of war movies, and I really like the ideas that are behind some of the more patriotic songs or movies from the United States. I don’t like violence or wars, but I am fascinated with this patriotism, although the ideas don’t relate to reality most of the time, especially nowadays. Today most people are paid to go to war and are mercenaries. I remember years ago, some teenagers, were going to war, because they were drafted and had to go, while others were going because they believed. They believed they were doing something to bring freedom somewhere. This can be a wrong move and a wrong idea, but I appreciated this feeling, the ideal of sacrificing yourself for a bigger purpose. It was not about bringing death to other people, but to free another country from an evil force. The title track is also about the United States, but about US metal, it only uses military metaphors. Back to “Ballad Of The Green Berets”, I don’t really feel it’s a cover. The only thing from the original song we used, are the lyrics. I wrote the music even before I had the lyrics, and even before I listened to the original song for the first time. I just wanted to use those lyrics, as to me, they are highly representative of the idea I was discussing before, the self-sacrifice, the role of freedom fighting. Also, I don’t think many people here in Europe know that song. I was speaking to my father, he is like 70 years old now, and asked him if he remembered the song. He only knew about the John Wayne-movie, and not the song. It’s not that we wanted to make a cover, we just wanted to use the lyrics from the original. Rhythmically our version has some similarities to the original, but the melody is totally different.
The song is about the Vietnam-war of course. Dexter Ward also had a song called “Back To Saigon” on the first album, and Mark admits some kind of fascination with this conflict.
– This was one of the main reason why I picked up this specific song, besides the fact that I liked the lyrics very much. It fits in the concept we already used for the “Back To Saigon”-track, trying to celebrate the people who actually went there and died there, or never came back. I don’t think there are many prisoners of war still alive, they are all probably dead by now, but for sure there were many soldiers that went to Vietnam and never returned. Nobody never had the balls to go there and bring them back on, this is what “Back To Saigon” is about: Rescuing the prisoners of war. A bit like those movies that were so popular in the late seventies and early eighties, the second Rambo-movie or the “Missing In Action”-movies with Chuck Norris. Have you seen “Uncommon Valor” with Gene Hackman? It’s a very good movie. The Vietnam-war is over, and the US left some of their soldiers there, and their brothers in arms, self finance a trip back to Vietnam to rescue them. This is the topic for the movie, and this is also the topic for “Back To Saigon”. “Ballad Of The Green Berets” is a different take on the topic, because it was written when the war was taking place, so it’s not speaking about going back, but just celebrating the special forces. I like the topic a lot, and there is also another song that I have written which is about an American movie called “Flight Of The Intruder” with Danny Glover. The song, I don’t know if it will ever be used on a Dexter Ward-album, is called “Flight Of The Intruder” as well. I saw the movie and liked it very much. As simple as that. Vietnam for me is a source of inspiration that never drains out. Everytime I think about it, I find inspiration for something different. I don’t like to write about specific battles or moments, but I like imaging myself in the chopper, flying over the jungle. Some people have this feeling when they see the ruins of the ancient temples, hear about ancient Roman history, or when they watch “Lord Of The Rings” or “Conan The Barbarian”. For me it’s about getting on a chopper and flying over the Vietnam jungle. It’s extremely fascinating, maybe I have a problem? Haha!
With what seems like a fascination for things American, as shown in song titles, in the logo, in the music with similarities to the US metal scene, I need to ask if you are a pro-American band identifying with typical American values and ideals?
– I believe we identify with something that doesn’t exist anymore, but something that maybe existed in specific moments in time, for certain people. I can’t really say that I, or we as a band, are pro-America. What does it mean by the way? I look at the guys that are racing for president in the United States of America right now, and I don’t like any of them. If I had to vote right now, I would probably have given it to Donald Trump. Not because I like him, but I don’t like the other guys either. I don’t think any of the candidates represents my idea of a president of the United States. Right now, we are not a pro-American band more than we are pro-Italian or a pro Greek-band. When we speak, sing or write about the United States, or anything where we use political or military metaphors, it’s always about the music. It’s about the supremacy of American heavy metal over another type of heavy metal, for instance power metal form Central-Europe. Some of it I love, some of it, I am not much of a fan of. When I mention the eagle or some other symbol, it’s actually about heavy metal, about US metal. I understand that this can drive people to wrong conclusions, maybe thinking that I am a fascist, or that I have strong political views that support military interventions. Again, it’s only about music. Some people choose to sing about elves and dragons to deliver certain messages, while we use those metaphors or symbols and translate them into US metal. Underground American heavy metal, to be more precise.
What’s your favourite American heavy metal band?
– Manowar. I don’t care about what they do nowadays, but the first albums up to the “Triumph Of Steel” are great. My favorite albums from them end with “Fighting The World”, as I don’t like “Kings Of Metal” that much. “Fighting The World” was one of the first albums I bought, and maybe that is why I like it so much. My favorite album from Manowar is “Sign Of The Hammer” though. No other American band ever reached that specific feeling in epic heavy metal. This is metal on the highest level. If you speak about underground bands, Omen is my favorite for sure.
On the cover of the new album you can see the Statue of Liberty with the head fallen off, or cut off…
– In the beginning, we didn’t have a clear idea of how the cover art should be. We were just trying to find the right concept. Since the first album was called “Neon Lights”, it had to be a motive from the night time, so for the new one, I wanted to have the light of day. The first idea was something like: Let’s be in the jungle, let’s be a command of soldiers making a blitz attack to bring back the prisoners with choppers and everything, like a “Back To Saigon” kind of theme. In the end we decided to go for something different though. We had this space or science fiction theme that we thought would work better for the overall mood of the album, even though there isn’t a science fiction-song on there. We wanted it to take the listener to a different place and a different moment in time, to take him out of the everyday routines and problems. What could be better than a trip to the space then? Up there, I guess you forget all the bullshit, and maybe you can concentrate more on your dreams and on music? So we went for this space setting, and then we found this cover art for a comic book or an anthology, at least something from the seventies. The illustration showed this very nice girl on the moon. This female warrior had killed the astronauts, and collected their heads. This was the main inspiration, we definitely wanted the moon and a girl there. We wanted it a bit different though, and our cover doesn’t express feelings of violence or something like that. It’s not about killing people like in the original artwork, but more about dreaming of an alternative future for mankind. If you check the cover art carefully, you can see the planet Earth in the distance. There is also some kind of space shuttle leaving the Earth and going towards the moon. The scene is taking place in the eighties, and the space shuttle is getting to the moon, but it’s actually getting to the future of the Earth, a “Planet Of The Apes kind of theme. I don’t know if you are familiar with the ending , when Charles Heston finds out that actually the planet he got to, is the earth in the future. He sees the ruins of the statue of liberty. We wanted it to show that there were people living on the moon and they destroyed their civilization through the use of nuclear weapons, something we feared would happen on the earth in the eighties. They gathered the remnants from that civilization and started again, reconstructing the biggest symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty.
I loved “Blood Of The Legends”, the last Battleroar-album, thought it was really amazing. Do you still have a good relationship with Kostas and the other guys in Battleroar, even after you parted ways?
– We still have a very good relationship with Kostas, and with everybody basically in the band. When you end a relationship, the first time isn’t easy, as you tend to resent the decision of the others in a way. Manolis and I wanted to do something different musically speaking, and we already had some problems during the recording of the third album, “To Death And Beyond…”. I remember we were having some really stressful moments in the studio. Everybody wanted to have the album going in “his” direction, and we had different ideas on how to present the songs, about the vocals, the arrangements or the song titles. All this brought us to some really tense moments. There even was a moment, during the recordings, where I wanted to leave. Then we finished it, and the album came out good, and we were all happy. Back to your question: When we left, we weren’t ready to be as we once were. We simply needed time to think about the situation, and to understand that the most important thing is for people to be able to do what they really want to do. Everyone has the right to pursue his own goals. We understood it, Kostas understood it and everyone in the band understood it. For some years now, we are totally okay. We met last year with the guys again, and we played a show together in Athens. It was one of the best experiences I ever had. I was very moved to be with the guys again, and sing the songs on stage with my friends. I think it was the best show we ever did with that lineup, not only because of the fact that we have become better musicians, but because it was a show we really wanted to do. We were very happy just to meet each other, play together and drink some beers. I also love the new album they did. Of course it is different this time, not only for the vocal approach, as Gerrit and I have quite different voices. He fits the band’s style, and especially the more epic influences in the band, which are the dominant influences since me and Manolis left Battleroar. Gerrit is also a great front man with a great stage presence. They are extremely professional right now, probably more professional than when we were in the band. It might be because I now see them as a fan, but they’re a great band, a great music making machine. I can now go to a Battleroar-show, without feeling melancholic in any way.