METAL CHURCH: Not nostalgic

MetalChurch2018aWhen you get a chance to speak to someone like Mike Howe, you simply don’t say no. His vocals on the three Metal Church albums from the eighties and early nineties are a huge part of my youth, and represented some sort of musikal awakening. 

– Well thank you very much, it’s cool to speak to you too, Leif.

It’s been 30 years since 1988, and what must have been a pretty crazy year for you. You did a demo with a band called Snair, then you joined Heretic and then finally found yourself as the singer of the migthy Metal Church.

– Yes, that’s right. Those are my early years. You know everyone has their stories from their youth and this is mine. It was pretty crazy indeed, and exciting and fun and all sorts of things and a lot of things happened in a very short time. When you’re young, things do move pretty fast, mainly because you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do.

Did you feel it was one step up the ladder for each of those bands? I mean, first the demo and then an album with Heretic and then finally joining Metal Church which was quite big back then.

– Things went pretty fast, but you know the first band, Snair, that you talked about…I was in the band with those guys back in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan for a couple years. They were like my first band ever, my childhood dream of being in a successful band, making it with those guys. When we disintegrated because of differences and because the scene in LA was really tough for us, it was more of a business decision from there on. I joined Heretic because they needed a singer . They were a big band and I really liked those guys and they were on Metal Blade as well. Then Kurdt Vanderhoof came in to produce the Heretic-album, “Breaking Point”,  and he and I immediately hit it off and had this chemistry together in the studio. It was really undeniable, so when he asked me if I’d be interested in joining Metal Church, I accepted of course. Because like I said, although I respected the Heretic-guys and liked them, they weren’t my brothers in arms from when I was a kid. So like I said, it was a business decision to do that and I took it. The rest is history as they say. Kurdt and I  have  a great history together writing and making music, and I feel very lucky to have made that connection.

And it also was a quite a unique story with you joining Metal Church, replacing David Wayne while he joined the Heretic-guys, forming Reverend.

– Yeah, that was quite strange, but it’s a small world and, you know, if you moved down to LA from, from Washington, there’s only a few bands down there in the same network because it was hair band days.  With all those bands going on, true hardcore metal fans were few and far between.

I have always wondered if you joining Metal Church was a about trying to make the band a bit more radio friendly, as your voice was probably easier for people to like than David Wayne’s voice.

– Well I don’t know about that, but we just did what naturally came to us, you know. The way we wrote music with my voice in there, was just a natural progression. It wasn’t anything we tried to do or forced. It was just as it is today,  we write the same way nowadays. It’s just organic and what comes out of us, you know what feels good, what sounds good. If it sounds good and it feels good to us, we keep it. If it doesn’t, if we’re not feeling it, then we throw it out. It’s as basic as that. And as far as Dave Wayne’s voice versus my voice goes, you say mine’s more commercially viable, I don’t know if that’s true, but if you say so. There are two types of singers, at least in my mind. We’re two different sides of the metal singing, he was the screaming, screeching, high pitch metal singer and he was great at it and people revered him and he deserved all those accolades. I am more of an operatic, yelling, controlled singer so that’s what made it easier for me to step into the shoes and take over the reins as the singer of Metal Church, because we were completely different.

When I listen to the last album “XI” as well as the new “Damned If You Do”, it seems like you have taken very well care of your voice through all these years. Have you kept singing, or lived a very healthy lifestyle or perhaps both of them?

– Once a singer, always a singer you know. Whether I’m singing in a heavy metal band or or not, I’m annoying those around me in my life because I can’t keep my mouth shut at all. But, you know, not singing and screaming any heavy metal for 20 years did has preserved my voice. You can’t go back in time and revisit, but that could very well be part of the factor. The other factor could be that I, back in the day,  learned proper operatic breathing and singing techniques. To use my diaphragm and project correctly. If you can do that, I think that you can have longevity in your voice. Look at James Hetfield, he’s a powerful singer like me. He uses his diaphragm and his breath control as well, so I think if you have control of your instrument which is your body and your voice, the whole thing together, then you can have longevity. The other part of that is I do take care of myself. I don’t smoke, and live a healthy lifestyle, take care of myself, eating healthy and getting enough sleep.

So what have you been up to for all these years since you quit Metal Church after “Hanging In The Balance”. I think I read somewhere a very long time ago that you lived in Europe for a while?

– No, I never lived in Europe, but I’ve been to Europe a lot. I have just lived my life like every other person. I am married, have raised two boys and I am a carpenter by trade, so I build things. Just a family lifestyle, I’m a family man.

From what I have read, Kurdt has approached you several times about to rejoin Metal Church. What made you decline throughout the years?

– Kurt never approached me up until the end of 2014. That’s the first time he ever called me to ask me to do that. When he called and asked me, it was a wasn’t a “yes” right away. “I don’t really want to do that, but I’m open to listening to you”, I said. So we had several talks, were we spoke about how the music industry has changed and recording and how we can do things over the internet and share files and do things like that. He told me it would be less invasive to a family lifestyle, and taking less time away from home. Because of the internet, we can easily share files. That was very appealing ,and so we just took it from there. After a while I said: “I’m open to listening to some music that you have written”. At the same time  I told him that I wasn’t gonna come back to Metal Church for nostalgia, and that I wanted to make a new record first and see how it went. You know, everything for me starts with the album, and if we can write an album with quality that we feel proud of and can stand behind, we can move forward after that. But until that happens there’s nothing really to move forward with. So we worked for like a year on putting an album together. We were both very excited and very proud of what we’ve done and then we decided to take it on the road. So we took the same approach with this album. We were like: Okay, that was great for two years and now we got to start over and see if we can do another one that we feel is equally strong or stronger than the last one. But if this it falls short in any way and we don’t feel very confident in what we’ve done, then that might be it for the band.

Mike has as long as he has been in the band, contributed to the lyrics. Of course he has this time as well…

– We write together and as you know ,Kurdt’s the main songwriter and driving force of Metal Church. You can feel his style and… his everything through the music. When we’re ready to start writing new material, Kurdt  gets inspired and then he’ll write like four, five or six songs and put them down on his computer. It’ll be a basic outline of the structures of the songs with guitars, drums, bass, and then he will send them to me and I’ll listen to them. When he gets a handful of them together, that we feel are something we would like to work on, I will go to his studio, and he will sit in front of the computer and  throw up a microphone in front of me, and I’ll just start singing out melodies and generally what I feel. We rearrange the music together, move this around and that around and that’s the beauty of digital recording. Nowadays you can do pre-production stuff out of your writing, and shape the song by moving parts around or taking parts out and it’s really a great tool for songwriting. We do that and sometimes when I’m singing and screaming out, ideas for lyrics  or titles will pop out. Sometimes we say: “That was really cool, let’s keep that and then we’ll build on that”. Or it’s more like: “That was average but we’ll keep it just as a reference track”.  You know for the melody, and then we’ll carry on, and when we’re finished with that,  we work together, finishing up the lyrics.

When I listen to this new album, it seems to me that you have had a stronger input now compared to the last album, because I can hear more of your signature vocal melodies.

– Well, you know, most of the melodies on the record are me doing exactly what I just said, and for some reason maybe we succeeded a little bit more the second time around and got back to the “The Human Factor”- days or something. The way I described the writing process, is the way we always do it and nothing changes. Kurdt looks at me and says: “Are you feeling it?”  I say “yes” or “no” and we’ll build something out if we both feel it. We are usually, both in complete agreement about the way things sound because we both know how we want Metal Church to sound. It’s very simple and it’s a great chemistry and it’s very organic and it’s not hard, In fact, it’s a lot of fun.

Mike says that the chemistry between him and Kurdt  was there  immediately when they started working together again.

– I think if you have a chemistry with somebody and you’ve worked with them before, it’s always going to be there. We try to remember how fun it was making music in the past. We said to each other: “Let’s have fun!” If you’re not having fun, I am sure it will show.

The band has sounded more like hard rock and  less like metal, at least until you rejoined, but do you feel that Kurdt’s songwriting has changed since, let’s say, “Blessing In Disguise”.

– Well I think everybody evolves and changes, but Kurdt’s also affected by his vocalist and who he is writing with. So when he knows that I am going to be singing the songs, he can keep that in the back of his mind. He has said in many interviews, that because I’m here now, he knows that I’m going to sing more melodic than the past singer, so he can write songs that might be a little more appropriate for my voice I guess.

MetalChurch2018dHave you followed Metal Church career closely when you have been out of the band?

– Not really. I mean, here and there I was curious of course, and was listening to a couple songs to hear what they were doing. I have not been listening to all theier albums though and havent really been a full fledged fan of theirs. Howe-ver (pun intended), I’ve always been a fan in spirit and in heart of Metal Church from the very beginning until now. I feel like I am lucky to be part of this thing called Metal Church. It’s like a big family you know, there has been a lot of members involved over the years, and to me it’s all good and it’s all a beautiful thing. All the music that Kirk has written through the years, whether it’s with Dave, me or Ronnie, it’s all part of the same thing.

There are some new guys in the lineup nowadays. Do you get along well with the new guys?

– Oh yeah! That’s the great thing about being older guys, one of the positives about all of us being in our fifties. With age, we have learnt how to get along and how to talk to each other. Everybody in the band nowadays, are just good, down to earth guys that like to play music together.

But when you team up for a tour or concert with  Armored Saint or Megadeth, is it like it was 25 years ago or do you feel that things have changed, that things are different?

For me and things are completely different. And I think there’s a lot more of a camaraderie between the bands nowadays. At least for Metal Church, because I always felt we were a little bit on the outside because we’re from Seattle. But like I said, all of those bands are older too and they’re all grown up men now. We went out with Armored Saint, and those guys are great guys and we got along and it was really nice. You know, there weren’t any of these, 20 year old egos or anything like that. It’s a lot more enjoyable to be relaxed and comfortable in your own skin. When the other guys are as well,  you can just go out and really, really appreciate how lucky you are to do what you’re doing.

In what ways do you think “Damned If You Do” is different from, from “XI”?

– Obviously, we have a different drummer so there’s always going to be a little bit of a difference, I also think that we have a little bit more of an aggressive attack in the songs, and our performances are reflective of that. And then I really liked the way Kurdt made this album, because everything is up front and you can hear all the players really just giving it their all. I think that really shows on this album. The guitar, my singing, the drums and the bass and the leads, they’re all just right out there in your face and it feels like a live, jamming record to me. It gets me excited, so yeah I really, I really like this album.

I just watched the video for the song “By The Number”. Mike confirms it was a lot of fun making this one.

– It was beyond a lot of fun, really.  I mean, grown men getting to jump around and act and play like big kids. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that?

Mike continues by speaking about where the idea for that video came from.

– I talked to the director, Jamie Brown who I knew from before. In the past, he helped us with the video for “Needle And Suture” and also the for “Reset”.  He’s very open minded and creative. I talked to him on the phone about, the basic concept of the song and what it is about. I suggested that I just played the guy, the main character. He thought the idea was great and so then I pulled together some stuff and came down to LA to shoot it in a house down there. We spent like an hour and a half at the beginning of the video shoot just talking about the story with the director and the cinematographer, and it was just a lot of fun. It was kind of shooting from the hip, but we had a basic idea, and it all came together in the first hour. The lyrics are a little tongue in cheek you know. Everyone is frustrated with their life sometimes. They feel like they just g to work, are coming home, being with their kids, and doing the same over and over. It’s quite okay sometimes, but sometimes you wish you could do this or that, or could be somewhere else. It’s a good fantasy, so we kind of took up that theme. We made it with this guy being a successful, maybe accountant or a businessman who got all the things in life that money can buy, but he’s really just wants to be a rockstar. Unfortunately, he had to give up his dream, as he had to make money instead of just rocking out. Maybe he’s a little regretful about his decisions. It’s just a light hearted, take on that kind of theme, and I’m sure lots of people relate to it in different ways.

Did you try to distance yourself from the metal scene when you quit Metal Church back then, or did you keep some of the friends and buddies from the Seattle scene?

– I kept my close friends from the band. John Marshall is still a really close friend of mine. Duke Erickson as well. When I left the band, I was very frustrated. The whole experience made me dislike music in general. Not only metal, but all music because of the business and how it was beating me down. I love music, but got very unhappy about the music business, so it was tough. But once I got away from it for a while, I got back into music. I am not a heavy metal fan exclusively. I like all music and I believe there’s great music in all genres if you look deep enough. There are artists out there that are diamonds in the rough. And music is art, so it’s special to each person. Each person has their own likes and dislikes and that’s the beauty of it. When people say they don’t like Metal Church , I tell them that’s fine, as it’s not for everybody . Everyone have different tastes and that’s the beauty of it. Music should make your life richer and make you feel good.

Have you done anything musically at all for all these years?

– Nothing serious or anything like that, just house jams you know with guitars and things like that. Just for fun.

There is a song on the new album called “Out Of Balance” which kind of brings me back to the old days with what seems like a reference to the title “Hanging In The Balance” from the 1993-album.

– We didn’t really think about it at the time, but of course you can’t help but draw parallels between that song and “Hanging In The Balance”. It’s just kind of a good heavy metal theme that goes right along with “Living By The Numbers” and living your life out of balance and all those kind of things. Heavy metal, and especially where we come from, is about getting out your frustrations in a positive way with the music.

It’s not easy for Mike to pick a favorite from the three albums he did with Metal Church in the late eighties and early nineties.

– Well, I don’t really have a favorite one because, like I say about songs that we write, they’re each individual products on their own and they’re like our children. You write them, you put them out and they’re very personal to you. So, I love them all in their own way. You love them for their differences and they all mark a specific time of our lives, so when you listen to them, they take you back to a different period and help you remember what you were going through.

Is it different for you when you do the old stuff on stage compared to when you sing the new songs?

– Yeah, it is hugely different, because, in a way, when you’re singing the old songs such as “Human factor”, “Fake Healer” or “Date With Poverty” , it’s a throwback to another era. That was me, but that was so long ago. Don’t misunderstand me, they’re great, fun songs to do, but I really enjoy doing new music, that’s what drives me. It was also one of my main points for coming back to Metal Church. I really am someone who doesn’t look to the past, I am not nostalgic, even though I enjoyed those songs and love those songs, I’m very much more interested in the new material that we are doing and I am living today in the moment.

How is that when you tour and open for Megadeth and do a three quarter set and only get to play a few new songs along with the older stuff?

– I’m okay with it, and like I tell people, it’s a great problem to have. How many bands can really say: “My god, there’s so many songs we would love to play. Which ones do we play?” It’s a good problem to have. It can be difficult as well, but in those moments, we’re just happy to be able to be out there and play music with Megadeth and in front of our fans, so, we take what we can get.

Being away from the business for quite some years, Mike says he can see the changes in the whole record industry,

Oh Yeah, I mean there’s huge, huge difference. The major label companies are virtually non existent and now we have Rat Pack Records and Nuclear Blast helping us out. We’re on King records in Japan, but Rat Pack is our main record company in the United States. They’re doing an amazing job, working super hard marketing us and putting our stuff out. And we can call them anytime we want. As matter of fact, I do. A lot. The owner,  he’s an amazing guy and we’re very happy to be able to speak to our record company and see how hard they’re working for us. It’s really funny, compared to the past when we couldn’t talk to anybody at our label. They wouldn’t even take our calls. And then, as far as the record sales go, that’s a hard one to swallow because it seems to me, in the age of the Internet, people feel they don’t really need to pay for music anymore, and that really hurts. We rely on our fan base that’s dedicated to supporting us and buying our albums. I guess it’s good to be a carpenter and not only a musician.

Heretic, the band you were in before you joined Metal Church, reformed back in 2011 or something.Did they approach you to try to get you on board?

– No, not at all. And then they put out a box set, you know, all my stuff, albums and videos and all that, and I only found out about it later. You know, it’s typical record business stuff from Metal Blade. I never saw a dime or anything from all that. I don’t hold anything towards those guys, I’m sure they’re not making a lot of money off of it, but it is what it is. And I’m just used to this in the record business. I only wish the best for those guys and I hope they have some success.

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