I did an interview with Attacker when they released their excellent album “Giants Of Canaan” early in 2013. When the new one, “Sins Of The World” arrived and proved to be just as good, the need to do a more indepth article on the band with main songwriter Michael Benetatos felt really strong. After a couple of weeks with questions and answers bouncing back an forth between us, with Michael doing and oustanding job, this feature has finally come to its conclusion. It’s an indepth article focusing of course, on the period since Michael joined the band back in 2001 with emphasis on the last two albums, both releases being among the very best metal albums released in this millenium.
When you first joined Attacker, there were quite a few original members still onboard. Do you feel that the band you have today is very different to the lineup back around year 2000?
– Hi Leif, thanks so much for the opportunity to answer some questions about Attacker, I’m honored and humbled to do so. Yes,the band has gone through quite a bit of changes even after I had joined, but the band feels the same musically and definitely comraderie wise. I have been with Attacker for four albums now, and I feel so much apart of Attacker although I’m not an original member, so I feel and I know how the new guys feel, very welcome and right at ease because they fit in perfectly, so it truly feels like the same band, it has only evolved.
How did you get in contact with the other guys that were Attacker at the time? Did you get to know them through the Jersey Dogs-album you did with Lou Ciarlo and Mike Sabatini, or were you already familiar with them by then?
– I knew the guys for a long time before i joined Attacker, actually even before I played guitar. Me and my younger brothers would go to see Attacker rehearse when we were kids. At that time they were known as Warlock, but they changed their name because the name was already taken. And I was very good friends with all original members and the guys who joined on “The Second Coming” album…we were all friends. And as I started playing, my band would share the rehearsal space with Attacker and they really liked the way I played so when they were looking for a guitarist to join Jersey Dogs, I was first pick, and the rest is history. When Attacker decided to reunite, they asked me because we already had such good chemistry between us. I miss the fallen brothers of Attacker’s past, may they rest peacefully. Attacker unfortunately had several members who passed on too early. Very sad!
So when exactly did you pick up a guitar for the first time?
– My father bought me an acoustic guitar for my 15th birthday along with a book of chords. By the end of my first day with the guitar, I was playing “Hotel California”. Incredibly slow, but still doing it. And I actually learned how to play lead guitar on an acoustic…haha…I learned the leads to “Kill Em All” on the acoustic guitar. Built my finger strength.
This band you refer to, which shared rehearsal space with Attacker, was that Apollyon which released a demo in 1988? Was this your first band, or were you in other bands before?
– The band that shared rehearsal space with Attacker, was called Mass Hysteria. We were young and I had a few original songs, but we played mostly material from Destruction, Testament, Forbidden and other thrash greats….Apollyon was my very first band just before Mass Hysteria, then Jersey Dogs with the Attacker guys.
Mike says he already had a strong relationship to the band and the first two releases, “Battle At Helm’s Deep” and “The Second Coming” when he joined.
– I love the first two albums, as do much, if not all, of the metal community. They are amazing albums, much different from each other, but still Attacker’s trademarks shine through. My favorite as a kid was “Disciple” (from “Battle At Helm’s Deep”), and it still remains one. It was exciting learning these songs especially because one was more classic metal and one was more thrashy, although not thrash at all. I came from more of a thrash background myself, so the songs I wrote before Attacker, were much more technical and riffy, so in a sense I sort of toned it down and scaled back on the overly intricate, technical songwriting and developed a different approach when writing songs for Attacker.
Many bands have, especially during the times when heavy metal wasn’t “all that”, have been tempted to go down a more alternative route musically. Something tells me that this has never been give a serious thought in the Attacker-camp?
– Absolutely not! Not only for Attacker’s sake, but for my own as well. I, and we, love metal and are passionate about it. Although I have many acoustic guitar pieces and have written more rock sounding songs on my own, Attacker and I will always try to put out the best metal we can!
Rock sounding songs? Are you going to do anything with this material, for instance a solo album?
– I don’t plan on writing any rock songs, it’s just that some of the music I create comes out more like rock than metal, and I keep it in my archives, my head that is, just because I love the parts. Actually “Glen of the Ghost” (from “Giants Of Canaan”) was one of those. I had written the acoustic intro part when I was about 16 or so, and it just stuck around in my head for many years until was playing it at rehearsal a few years ago and our bass player at the time Jon Hanemann, asked me: ” What is that?” and he was like “We have to write a song with that.” This was a few weeks before we recorded “Giants of Canaan”, so if he hadn’t inquired about the little part I was playing, that song would have never been totally written…so thank you Jon!
Even though he used to prefer the thrashy stuff, Mike doesn’t write material in that vein anymore.
-No, I don’t. I used to play as fast as I could, songwriting and solos, but now I like to create tasty sounding music with feel and hook, so I’ve slowed things down considerably. I’m getting old too. Haha!
You wrote a lot of the material for “Giants Of Canaan” as well, but on the new album, you are responsible for all the music. Was this something you just had to do to make this album a reality, with the members that also wrote for the last album now out of the band?
– Yes, I wrote a majority of the music on “Giants Of Canaan” and assissted with the other tracks on it. I like to think of myself as the musical director in a sense for Attacker, but I say this with the other members in willing agreement. But we all add our own personal touches which totally makes the songs ours, not mine or whomever wrote a particular song. And on “Sins of the World”, I had many songs already written or soon written after the release of “Giants Of Canaan”. Pat was in the process of writing a song which I was happy to help with, but it never went anywhere as he seemed to have lost interest in it and the band. So I guess it was up to me to write all the music. Thankfully my creative juices were flowing with little writer’s block!
Was this the reason why Pat left the band, that he lost interest?
– Pat left the band due to several circumstances. He may have had personal issues, and he seemed to lose interest in getting together with me to work on material. We used to get together many, many times to ensure we were tight and work on songs, but in the last two years before he left, we got together only a few times. We will always remain great friends, because he’s like a brother to me. He was even in my wedding party. So I love that son of a bitch, and wish him the very best.
Was it more satisfying in a way to come up with an album worth of material on your, or do you prefer to share song writing responsibilities with other members?
– I have to admit that having written an album so well received by everyone is very rewarding, and it feels great to be recognized personally for it. But we are a band of creative guys who without their input and suggestions, the songs may have turned out differently so the credit is taken as a team in my eyes. I do enjoy being the main songwriter, but I also really, really enjoy adding my touches on other peoples songs. It is fun and challenging to collaborate and hear different influences on a given song. For example “Curse The Light” was a great song written by Jon Hanemann musically and I had the best time adding my underlying guitar work and assisting in different parts of the song, creating it together. Lou Ciarlo as you may know, has always lovingly referred to my input in the songs as ” the Mikey-Mike spice “. Hahaha! Gotta love that guy…
With a lot the songwriting on your shoulders, it would be interesting to hear a little about how you approach it. Do you feel free to do what is natural to you, or are you a captive of the band’s former works?
– Writing songs comes so naturally, because I write whatever I enjoy hearing.Styles change from song to song, and of course you may hear many influences throughout. Although I come from a more thrash background as I mentioned earlier, the songs I write for Attacker have never been forced or I never felt I needed to adapt my songwriting approach whatsoever, not even in the slightest when it comes to writing for Attacker. It is just what I would create on my own. I am a fan of Attacker’s works before me, so I like to think it is all the same vein and type of metal that me and all my friends in Attacker throughout the years, grew up with and love. And I approach the songwriting process with a cool riff and just build on it. I love to incorporate heaviness with melody of course, so a little brutality with some sweet sounding, soothing harmonies. I just build part upon part, then see if tempo changes would work in certain areas and different moods may work in some areas as well.
Even with Michael Sabatini now being the only original member of Attacker left, Mike argues that he feels just as comfortable performing the stuff from the two first albums as the material from the latest releases.
– I absolutely feel comfortable playing stuff from the first two albums because I love them and those are special to me, because I grew up listening to them knowing my friends created such amazing songs. I feel the same about playing them as I do about the songs I’ve written. To me it’s all about the band, not the individual!
Being able to write the type of high quality, really inspired metal stuff, with no alternative influences, should mean that you are nothing but a metal head yourself?
– Of course i am a true metalhead…till death! Thanks for considering the songs as high quality metal, that’s very appreciated. I do have many influences: Iommi, Shermann/Denner, Rik Emmet, Murray/Smith, Satriani, Malmsteen, to name a few. And we don’t claim to be reinventing the wheel when it comes to originality. We just enjoy writing and playing music we love listening to.
Do you still follow the scene and the new bands, or do you prefer to put on the old album from the eighties?
– Of course I prefer listening to bands and the style of bands I like most. Old school traditional metal, thrash and power metal, but some of my favorite bands also includes Opeth, Mastodon and Gojira who coincidentally are touring together. Very cool!
You mentioned a couple of guitar duos among your influences, the likes of Shermann/Denner and Murray/Smith…After having worked with Pat Marinelli for a long time, you now have Jon Hasselbrink alongside you. Where did you find him, and how would you describe him as a guitarist?
– Jon Hasselbrink was in a band years ago with Bobby, so when we heard of Pat’s decision to leave the band, he was the first and only to be considered, and let me just say what an amazing job he has done in very minimal time learning almost 30 Attacker songs including solos and performing them without one mistake. It’s pretty incredible how determined and steadfast he is to get the job done, and a fantastic job indeed.
According to Mike, the chemistry between himself and new boy Jon is great.
– After playing so many years with Pat, getting along great and feeding off each other, I figured me and him had the perfect dual guitar player relationship, so naturally I was a little worried about how another guitarist would fit in with both the band and me personally. I wasn’t sure if there would be any competitive awkwardness or ego issues that come with some talented musicians, but I can honestly say I couldn’t imagine being happier with anyone else. Jon is in every sense of the word “perfect ” for Attacker, again for both the band and as my new right hand man.
I see some people mentioning that the new album is a bit more aggressive than the previous one. Do you agree, and if so, was it something that you deliberately thought about when you wrote the album?
– When writing “Sins Of The World”, the only concern I had was: Will it be at least as good as “Giants Of Canaan”? That album was so well received. The songs themselves came naturally. As with most of the songs from the last two albums, I incorporated new parts with some parts I had written long ago, and I am using this approach for songs I am currently working on as well. I have so many riffs and cool parts from years ago, they somehow re-emerge and fit in perfectly where I need them in newer songs. I do agree that “Sins Of The World” is definitely more aggressive, but I didn’t set out to make it that way, it’s just what came out. Haha!
Were there other aspects about “Giants Of Canaan” that you wanted to change or improve?
-There’s always aspects of a recording that you wish you could have played cleaner, or something different, and there will always be parts I am not as happy with as I would like. But it’s a captured moment that you have to accept the way it is and love it regardless. On “Giants Of Canaan ” and every album I’ve ever played on, there are plenty of parts I would change if I could, but it’s history now!
The stuff you mention about the newer songs being partly based on old ideas, is interesting. Is it working on new ideas that triggers these old ideas from your head, or do you have old riffs and ideas recorded that you actually sit down and listen to?
– Both! When I have written a few parts for a new song that work together well, I often try some older parts that I have to see if they would work as well. And sometimes I will start off writing a song with an older part to finally give it a home. Yes, I do have many riffs I’ve recorded and sometimes just sit and listen to them and try to find a perfect match for what I am currently working on.
According to Mike, nothing specific drove him to create “Sins Of The World”.
– It is actually what just transpired. I wasn’t sure if these songs were strong enough or not. I have a terrible issue with second guessing myself and being somewhat shy when introducing new songs, but I can usually tell by positive feedback by the guys or I just feel strongly about it myself. There is a song that didn’t make it on the new album, not because it wasn’t strong, we just felt the album was a perfect length time wise.
It’s clearly not about money, and being well established guys, not in your twenties anymore, I guess there is no desire to tour the world either?
– We would absolutely love to tour the world of course, but we all know that this day and age it’s extremely difficult to make a living musically, sad as it is. We all have good day jobs, so we are happy playing several great festivals and selected shows throughout the year. We get to do what we love still and have comfortable lives. But of course the dream is still there to be as big as possible and tour the world. But we accept and are grateful for what we have.
Performing in a great heavy metal band, doing the occasional underground festivals and releasing a new album once in a while, sounds like a great contrast to your daily life with families and ordinary jobs. Does it have a positive impact on your life quality?
– Playing in Attacker is one of the things in my life I am very proud of and I actually can’t wait to rehearse every Sunday. It makes me happy and I can honestly say my life would be much less exciting and dull without being a part of this legendary band. When I’m having a terrible day, or things are falling apart and I stress out, I remember, I’m in a very cool band called Attacker…and I have to smile. So yes, being in Attacker is fucking awesome!
Let’s go back to this thing you just mentioned about being shy when introducing new songs. Has it to do with your personality, or are you generally very critical towards your own work?
– When it comes to writing songs, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, not to say I write perfect songs of course, just meaning that I explore many different scenarios and arrangements to get the best possible order or arrangement of the songs. Sometimes I will make a part too technical which really sounds better more simplistic and vice versa, so when I introduce songs, I am both very eager and dreading the feedback. Haha, but I am incredibly open to suggestions from anyone and everyone, and this is how we work very well as an unit. I am very much my own worst critic, but it has proven to serve us well
I guess singer Bobby Lucas writes the lyrics for Attacker based on your music. Do you think about possible subject themes when you compose music, or do you manage to compose without thinking in terms of lyrical content?
– For the most part, I write songs without thinking about lyrical content, I leave that to Bobby to sense what vibe or mood the song emanates and he does a great job of feeding off the music and matches the lyrical content to the feel of the music.
“Sins Of The World” is that a title that Bobby, as the lyricist, came up with, or something you decided on together? What does the title mean to you?
– “Sins Of The World” was actually the original name of both the album and the song, but since we had the song “World Destroyer”, I figured naming the song “Sins Of Man” and the album “Sins Of The World” would be cool. We didn’t want to have two songs with “world” in the title, so it is what it is now. Bobby came up with the title for the album, and yes it is directly related to the song “Sins Of Man”, and the album cover art is directly related to it as well, depicting many scenes of events that took place throughout history where man has proven to be a evil and detrimental to the planet and of course himself and ourselves. The incredible amount of cruel and inhumane acts men have carried out is astonishing and continues to be alarming to say the least .
Mike have a real hard time picking a fave song off the new album, but after a while he opens up a little.
– It’s really impossible to choose, not only because I wrote them, just because they each have their own personality so to speak, but I found “Sins Of Man” to probably be my favorite, with “Garuda” very close. I love “Archangel” too, and it has gotten the most recognition and praise, but I must admit that was the only song I was worried about before the album was released. I wasn’t sure how it would be received, as it is more commercial sounding and happier than the others. I am extremely pleasantly surprised with the response it has gotten, a huge sigh of relief!
Was there one track that was particularly satisfying for you to finish?
– The song I was most happy to finish was “Where The Serpent Lies”. It was challenging coming up with parts that flow together from minor to major moods and back. And creating the little classical guitar piece at the very end was a last minute addition, so I had very little time to work it out, but it came out really cool. Not perfect…but cool!
To close this interview, I ask Mike to let us in on how he views the Attacker-albums that you he participated on. First off is “Soul Taker”and “The Unknown” from 2004 and 2006 respectively…
-Each of the albums I was featured on has its own special place for me. It was a much different life I led during “Soul Taker ” and especially “The Unknown “. It was a dark time in my life where I was a daily cocaine abuser and an alcoholic, drinking first thing in the morning for years. I even wrote lyrics to two songs on “The Unknown “, “Blessed With This Curse ” and “Your Own World “. “Your Own World” is my outside looking in on myself view. I was a tortured soul during this time and am proud to say i am almost 7 years clean and sober. The music back then that I wrote is still among my favorites. “Soul Taker” was an album which I only wrote one complete song , the instrumental “Return To Mordor”, but I had a great time adding the guitar parts to the bass lined written songs by Lou Ciarlo. Michael Sabatini actually had written the music to “Sleepy Hollow” and most of the lyrics on “Soul Taker”, and I enjoyed as well participating with stuff Pat had written. For “The Unknown” I had a much bigger hand with songwriting as I had written “Anger Aggression “, “Nail it Down”, “Blessed With This Curse”, “Your own world”, ” Tienblas”, “The Unknown” and “Fear Of Disgrace” as well as having major input on the remaining songs. So I was really finding my place in Attacker at this time..
What about “Giants Of Canaan” and “Sins Of The World” then?
-Fast forward 6-7 years later, having spent some time in rehab and having taken my life back, I was a totally different person with everything to live for. I used to write music under the influence of alcohol and drugs, so when it came time to create music again, I was gonna have to take a different approach and I wasn’t sure if I could write anything good being new to this clean living. It seemed impossible, but of course I found that I didn’t need anything to help me create music that i enjoyed playing and hearing . And I actually love my life now and being able to write music better than ever is a testimony to it. So “Giants of Cannan ” was a result of a great time in my life where I was so comfortable with myself and writing music. It seemed to be effortless, and it is one of my favorite all time metal albums. “Sins of the World ” is another chapter in the rebirth of Attacker, a new improved Attacker I like to think, and so do many other people. Not improved because it’s better than the past years of Attacker, but improved all around in the band’s state of mind as a whole and our outlook on the future and our eagerness to keep the momentum going and trying to create the best music we can. It’s hard for me to pick strengths and weaknesses of our albums, because to me they’re all strengths in one way of another. It’s the band as a whole that makes Attacker strong, always has, always will. Thanks so much for allowing me to answer your questions, it’s been an honor .