ANGEL WITCH: Not rocket science

Ester Segarra

Being a bit too young to experience the release of Angel Witch’s self titled debut, the band’s material still made a huge impact on me when I bought the vinyl version of “Angel Witch Live” at my local store when it was released through Metal Blade back in February 1990. It might have been the mystical cover art that convinced me, I can’t recall having heard anything from the band, not even the song “Angel Witch”, but as I listened to the album, songs like “Angel Of Death”, “White Witch”, “Sorceress” and “Atlantis” to name only a few, really impressed me. In retrospect, these songs fueled my interest in NWOBHM and underground metal in general. When the opportunity arose to hear Kevin Heybourne’s thoughts on the band’s brand new, fifth studio album, as well as some topics from the past, I didn’t hesitate a second.  

When you released «As Above, So Below» in 2012, did you know you had another album in you, or did you finish the album with the thought: “Never again, not another album”?

– I am always playing guitar and writing riffs and, ultimately, I always want to record new music, but there has to be the right feeling in a band for that to happen. Come around 2013 the vibe really began to hit rock bottom for a year or so, Bill Steer had to leave because he couldn’t juggle us with Carcass and certain people in the group just started to run their own agenda and attempt to sow division within the group. It was very hard to deal with, and at my low points back then I did start to feel that it wasn’t worth it. But myself, Will and Jimmy had to double-down, cut out the dead wood and carry on anew. Once the fog lifts, the creativity comes back and you start to look forward again. Which is fortunate, because we got it right this time round!

Even though the reception was generally great, was it something about that album you weren’t fully satisfied with and tried to do differently this time, or was the approach pretty much the same?

– The last record was a bit thrown together really. The material was OK, but with a bit more work those songs could have been really great! As it was, we just went into the studio and bashed out what we had and that was that. We really should have rehearsed more. It has its great moments but, as a body of work, it doesn’t stack up, as far as I’m concerned. I wasn’t too sold on it, even back in 2012, if I’m honest.  People liked it, because it had that original vibe of Angel Witch which they love, but I am just not sure that we executed it well enough.

On that album you recorded a couple of older songs from the past. If I understand right, there are a couple of older, never recorded tracks present this time as well, in the form of “The Night Is Calling” and “Don’t Turn Your Back”. How do you work when you choose which old tracks to rerecord? Do you remember all the songs you have perfomed live, or do you have to go back to old live recordings and relisten? How big are the changes made to these two songs?

– I always loved “The Night is Calling” but in the mid-eighties, the other guys in Angel Witch didn’t want to record a track like this, I think they thought it was too old school or something, so we moved onto other things, which resulted in a period of the band which isn’t really worthy of the Angel Witch name in my opinion. Palmer is always boring us with his “imagine what the second Angel Witch album “could” have been theory”.  He has a point, I suppose; there is a live tape from 84 that has “Witching Hour”, “Dead Sea Scrolls” & “Don’t Turn Your Back”, plus there was the original arrangement of “Undergods” and “The Night is Calling”.  And “Guillotine” of course.  Imagine we’d recorded all those, in the “real” Angel Witch way, without getting in a different singer and trying to move with the times….   I mean.  It could have totally failed, commercially.  Or not.  We’ll never know.  But I think the real spirit of the band would have been kept intact. But, yeah, we got rid of that stuff, went a different road, and didn’t start playing “The Night is Calling” live again until 2009, it goes down so well, we couldn’t drop it from the set.  The pressure to get it right in the studio was pretty intense.  I hope we did it justice. What happened with “Don’t Turn Your Back” was, we posted a photo from the studio on our social media and a guy from Finland commented asking if we’d re-record that song.  The other guys were all “how does that one go Kev”, and I could sense they were going to try and ambush me!  Will had already messaged the guy to get an old live mp3 he had (which I already had at home – because it was from my original tape), so I thought I may as well break out the riffs, and they sounded pretty good!  So, I ran through it with Fredrik a couple of times, and we tracked the drums, with that “maybe we’ll come back to this” attitude.  As it happens, we did just that! I don’t spend time going through all the old tapes, as I am happiest working on new stuff. But Will is like a bloodhound man! That’s how we ended up with “Dead Sea Scrolls” & “Witching Hour” on the last records as well.   They may be other tunes out there in the tape-trading bootleg world, but if there are. I am not telling him!

I noticed that on the tape release featuring the track “Don’t Turn Your Back”, that Martin and Palmer were credited for lyrics for “Don’t Turn Your Back”, does this mean that the lyrics for this one are reworked or maybe completely new?

– Once we started tracking rhythm guitars, I did a pass on the “Don’t Turn Your Back, and it was starting to sound decent, so we thought we might carry on a bit further with recording it. We had started listening to the mp3 from the old live tape, and no one could make out the words, so Jimmy and Will disappeared into a room for an afternoon and wrote some lyrics.  They wrote out whatever words they could make sense of from the old recording, and then filled in the bits they couldn’t understand with stuff that just had the right number of syllables; even if it was just nonsense, then they wrote new words around that and presented them to me very nervously! The track was always called “Don’t Turn Your Back” and the structure is largely the same, but I added a bit of spice to the main rhythm guitar riff and, there are a couple of lines which remain from the original lyrics. And the melodies are the same. The new words are loosely based on a movie called The Love Witch, that we had watched one night during the recording sessions. We watched a load of movies during the evenings in the album sessions, Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price and Diana Rigg was a right old trip down memory lane for me. We ended up writing “I am Infamy” about that film, it’s a good one!

Is that a general feeling you have, that the lyrics written in the past are not good enough for the Angel Witch of today, or have the themes you write about or how you write the lyrics changed over the years due to yourself growing?

– I think it’s natural to look back at your old lyrics and cringe a little bit, but I wouldn’t change a thing really. Obviously, we want to do the best we can in the here and now, and that’s all we can do, right? I don’t think that Angel Witch lyrics in 2019 are specifically dripping with 40 years of extra life experience or anything. I’m not preaching here! Although, both ‘We Are Damned” and the title track itself are a based around mankind’s selfishness, specifically with regard to environmental issues and animal agriculture, but they are cloaked in the old Book of Revelations metaphor!

Since it’s something like seven years since the last album was released, have you worked on the material for this whole period, or is it a result of some more concentrated work for the past few years?

– I didn’t start properly working on the new stuff until 2017 really. Fredrik joined in January of that year and it was just a great time. We toured with Electric Wizard a couple of times, went to Japan, did some festivals and all that and the vibe was perfect and I started to think “this set up could do a really good record”, so we had our first set of rehearsals, just two days, in November 2017 and worked on “Window of Despair”. It all just clicked, and by January 2019 we were up in Leeds demoing the whole thing! It happened pretty fast once we got going, after years of treading water.

Do you approach songwriting differently compared to what you did in the early days? It seems you were really creative back then and the songs were flowing out, while things surely take more time these days, although that is perhaps due to other factors than lack of creativity?

– I think that the other factors can influence the creative spark, really. When you have a unit, which is working and there is a positive mood, the songs are easier to write. Although it is never “easy”! I still write in the same way I used to, I get all the riffs and structures together, send it to the guys and then we work on it. Often, I add more stuff to a song, which then gets stripped out in the rehearsal process. The guys have a bit of arrangement input, and some lyrics here and there. Maybe it’s more collaborative then it used to be, but I’d say it’s 85 or 90 pecent me. Not that we think about it in those terms.

The song “Don’t Turn Your Back” was released as the first taster from the album, and it’s also the opener on “Angel Of Light”. Why do you feel it ticks both boxes?

– I think it’s just got that immediate impact which worked so well to kick off the record, and also had that, kind of, “We’re back!” thing about it. I don’t think it’s the best song on the album, but it made sense to open with it, and roll it out for the first track as a kind of statement of intent.

Angel-Witch_Angel-of-Light-500x500Listening to the new album, I have to say that in 40 years, I have heard bands changing a lot more than Angel Witch has done, both musically and when it comes to the vocals. Why is staying close to the original sound and not trying to develop to much and stray away from it the one and only solution for a band like Angel Witch?

– I think we had our moment of changing style in the mid-eighties really. And it didn’t really sound like the band I had in my head when I was seventeen and listening to Black Sabbath back in the nineteen seventies in Beckenham. And I don’t think it worked, actually. If you’re not careful you can go through these little processes of trying to be “current” or “relevant” or some shit but then you realise, relevant to who? I want Angel Witch to be relevant to Angel Witch fans, so it has to sound like Angel Witch! It’s not rocket science! So, one day you just think “fuck this” I’m just going to do write the songs I’d like to listen to. That was the idea around the time I re-formed the band in 2008, and that was the way we made the last two records. And, what do you know? Not only was it what we wanted to sound like, it was what everyone else wanted as well. Which is lucky, because we’d be doing this anyway. Glad there are people out there who agree though.

You have bein playing metal for more than 40 years, being a way for a while of course, but always returning, and most of the time in Angel Witch. How has this band affected your life on a personal level and what are you most proud of from your long career?

– You make a lot of personal sacrifices to keep playing in bands. Relationships can fail, you can hit real lows in your own head because you are always grabbing for something that is just a little out of reach, and real disappointment can come from that.   Nowadays, I think we are all just grateful to be doing what we love, and we have toned the expectation level down a bit. Ironically, of course, everything happens to be going really great. But you can never bank on these things!   I’m very proud of the new album; proud the hear the band playing so tight, proud to hear the songs recorded with such a great production, just happy that the stars seemed to align this time. In the past, like with the debut LP, I was happy with the songs but there was always a “but”, the production of the first album or the timing issues with the drumming on ‘As Above, So Below’. Always “it’s good, but…”

You never quite lived up to the first album with your second and third one. Do you feel those two albums would have been viewed differently if you haven’t released the debut album earlier?

– That’s an understatement! Those records really should not have been Angel Witch albums! There are some cool songs, but the band wasn’t locked in as a unit, the material was some sort of attempt at doing something “current”, I don’t know what the hell happened with the production. And the vocals? Look. On a technical level, I have to be objective and say that Dave Tattum is a better singer then me. But it’s just not the sound of Angel Witch.

The debut album is still a huge influence for many new acts coming through. In your opinion, what qualities does it have that makes it a timeless classic? 

– I can’t comment on that. I’m really glad that people feel that way, but once we have recorded it and put it out there, it’s their record then. People can take whatever they want from it, and they are better placed to comment on why it’s a “timeless classic” like you say, then I am. If I sat here and described it in those terms…. Who talks about themselves in that way?

Your voice is also very recognizable, have you done anything particular to keep it in shape during the years, also when Angel Witch has kept a low profile. 

– No, I’ve never been one for doing vocal exercises and all that stuff. But I am just starting to dip my toe into that world. It’s about time really, I play guitar all the time and it keeps me sharp, so I suppose I should do the same with my second instrument. After all, I did try to get someone else to handle the vocals for me and look how that turned out!

For this new album, you have worked with producer James Atkinson who did the last Wytch Hazel-album and a few other releases, why did you choose him and what has been his biggest contribution to the album?

It seemed like the most obvious choice for us. Will has known him since he signed the Gentleman’s Pistols to Rise Above years ago, and has hired James to record bands on his new label like Wytch Hazel and stuff. We knew he was a great engineer, and his new studio is really good, plus he is a great guitar player, a great songwriter and a great singer. We wanted someone more than just a guy to record us and he ticked all the boxes. I don’t want some guy who, can’t play, write or sing telling me how to do stuff. I’ll listen to other people’s ideas. But they need to know what they are talking about, or it’s just a joke, you know? Like I said before, I write the songs. They are probably 90% done before other people get involved, but that extra 10% I got via input from the band and James, that’s a massive leap. You can’t under estimate that.

Jimmy Martin and Fredrik Jansson are both pretty new faces in the band. Why are they the right fit for Angel Witch?

– After Bill had to go, we got a friend of ours in on second guitar, Tom Draper, who then had to move to the US in order to follow his wife when she got a new job out there. This was a low point really, things had degenerated with our drummer Andrew at that point, and there was an unbelievable amount of negativity and strange power games going on within the band. It was pretty unbearable. Will called Jimmy and it worked out really well in terms of the playing, but the vibe was still pretty dire. I don’t think any of us were enjoying the experience too much. Come mid 2015 Andrew had booked a US tour with Lucifer, which conflicted with a couple of Angel Witch dates, so we got our friend Alan French in to cover for him, but Andrew seemed to think that he had some sort of say over who we got behind the kit in his absence and really threw his toys out of the pram: “him or me” kind of thing.   It is unacceptable to be dictated to like that, so we were “OK, him then” and off he went, and we carried on playing with Alan. From that moment, the vibe improved immeasurably, and it was enjoyable again. But Alan had a lot on and couldn’t stick around (he’s still a good friend of ours though) so Will called Fredrik. He knew him from when he was in Witchcraft, and knew he was a heavy hitter, very tight and is a “Bill Ward man”. What more do you want? And we’ve been having a great time since January 2017, it all feels right. It’s never felt like this in forty years!

Being the only original member, you have worked with a lot of different musicians over the years, with both British and American lineups. Who of the musicians you have worked with in the past has impressed you the most?

– Yeah, I have worked with some tasty players over the years, Lee Altus and Bill Steer are both great guitar players, and Tom Hunting is a ripping drummer. I have to say, and I know you’ll roll your eyes at this, but this is the best unit I’ve had as a band. We have four people all pulling in the same direction, and so it’s like a machine. I mean, Jimmy will be the first person to say that Steer is a better player then him, but we all just lock in so well now.

You have two newer albums out now, and even though they are both strong, most people will come to your concerts to hear the old classics one again. How do you feel about this? Do you ever get tired of performing the song “Angel Witch”

– I often feel like I’m tired of playing “Angel Witch”…. Until we do! Then the vibe becomes electric and it’s great!  If ever I get a bit jaded, I just imagine how Tony Iommi must feel playing “Paranoid” again and again. I mean, “Paranoid” isn’t the best song on the ‘Paranoid’ album, is it? And “Angel Witch” isn’t the best on ‘Angel Witch’, but to have a “hit”, if we can call it that, is an honour that most people don’t have, so I don’t want to be the one complaining about it. So, of course, it would be horrible to just exist in a time capsule and not be able to look forward, but that debut record is so loved, by so many people, that it would be a shit night for them to pay all that money for a ticket and then you just play your whole new album from start to finish. Also, I really do love songs like “Angel of Death” and “White Witch” and to still enjoy playing all that stuff over forty years since it was written, to a crowd who weren’t even born until, like, twenty years after it was recorded. That’s a privilege!

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