Interview with guitarist Chuck Keller
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: September 30, 2012
Kansas City's own torch bearers for a raw and filthy sounding old-school Thrash/Death Metal Ares Kingdom haven't been resting on their laurels since their excellent second album, Incendiary, was released in 2010 on NWN! Productions. These four experienced warmongers have been in constant motion, playing a few well-chosen gigs here and there, including the Rites of Darkness (in San Antonio, TX) and NWN! (in Berlin, Germany) festivals.
Lately, Ares Kingdom has been working on a cover song album, titled Veneration, that will contain some of their favorite songs. The list includes bands such as Mefisto, Slaughter Lord, R.U. Dead?, UK's Sacrilege and so on. The release of Veneration will hopefully be out by the end of the fall, via NWN! Productions.
I contacted the main motor behind Ares Kingdom, guitarist Chuck Keller, to find out more about their cover songs album and to also inquire as to plans for Ares Kingdom's third studio album.
Read about this and much more, as Chuck gave some insightful answers in the interview that was conducted with him just a short while ago...
Luxi: It's been a while since we talked, actually a few months, to be more precise. I think it's pretty appropriate to ask how life has been in Kansas City, with your family, work and of course Ares Kingdom?
Chuck: It's good. Everyone is fine and moving forward!
Luxi: Talking about Ares Kingdom, you have an album of covers coming out on NWN! Productions, titled Veneration. It features cover songs from such bands as Slaughter Lord, Mefisto, Vulpecula, R.U. Dead?, Sacrilege and many more. When did you get the idea that it would be cool to record a full-length album featuring only covers of songs from some of your favorite bands?
Chuck: The idea evolved sometime around 2009/2010. We thought it would be fun to do an EP of cover tracks, but it eventually grew to become about as long as many full-length LPs!
Luxi: When you started doing this, was your initial idea to stay as truthful to the original versions as possible, or did you want to give a special Ares Kingdom twist to them?
Chuck: There are a several schools of thought when it comes to covers. Some believe in taking liberties with the source material, which can certainly yield interesting results. Another is to follow the source as closely as possible. We fall somewhere between the two. We follow the original songs very closely, yet we play them as our own. Add to that our distinctive production style, and I think its something very special indeed.
Luxi: Was it a difficult process to decide which songs would be covered for this album? I'm sure each of you have your favorite songs, so did choosing between all of them require you to make any compromises regarding the final content?
Chuck: Not too hard to decide, no. Veneration is by no means exhaustive; in reality it barely scratches the surface. Yeah, we had to compromise as far as the number of bands we would like to have covered, but there's always the future.
Luxi: The album title, Veneration, basically tells it all; I am sure there are a number of bands that Ares Kingdom respect more than others for what they represent, musically and perhaps ideologically too. Would you tell us about each band featured on the album and why they are so special to Ares Kingdom that they deserved to be included on Veneration?
Chuck: These bands were selected for their level of influence or inspiration on one or more of us. I'm on record as having said AK is a band for those that wish Slaughter Lord and Mefisto had recorded full-length albums, and this is our chance to show everyone what we think their albums might have sounded like, ha-ha! Slaughter Lord is a band we've thought about covering for ages. "Die by Power" may almost be thought of as their definitive track, and it boasts the heaviest passage of all time, so we went for it. Sacrilege was a very special band that evolved so quickly that they spun themselves off into oblivion faster than most expected, but they left quite a legacy. "The Captive" comes from their late middle period, which boasted some real class work, which had an influence on not only us but also a band like Bolt Thrower. Germany's R.U. Dead? rose from the ashes of Poison and took that approach to its musical pinnacle. We feel there are similarities between R.U. Dead? and Ares Kingdom musically, as well as in that AK is also a band that formed from the ashes of an older 'cult' band. Mefisto is another band I've wanted to cover for years, and I'm immensely proud of our version of "Act Dead." I hear from Vulpecula fans regularly, and still having a very soft spot in my heart for that material, we chose to record a new version of "Celestial." I'd like to do other Vulpecula tracks in the future. We also do a song by Alex's old band, Nepenthe, titled "Oblivion." It's a song that wasn't actually released until after he had left - and after the band had changed its name to Ligeia. There's another special track on there I'll leave for you to discover for yourself.
Luxi: The main artwork for Veneration was done by an artist named Manuel Tinnemans and the layout was taken care of by Timo Ketola. What were some of the reasons you ended up choosing those two artists and did any other artists' names come to mind when you were nailing down the final list of bands for the album?
Chuck: My history degree combined with my job as an authenticator and appraiser has given me a background in art history that I am able to drawn upon for the band. One of my favorite aspects of a new AK project is putting together the visuals in a way that compliment the lyrics and themes. When it comes to artwork I'm well resourced, so it's just a lot of fun for me. It's also nice to know that my day job may, at any time, turn up some piece of art that AK can borrow in the future.
Of course this is the first time we've contracted with an artist to draw a cover for us, and this artwork is based on a First World War propaganda poster, so it's not entirely original. He's also doing the back cover, but that too is based on something from the real world, the portal of the Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon, by Claus Sluter, although here again we allowed Tinnemans some artistic license - which he uses to great effect - while at the same time giving him other models to incorporate into the piece. He is also doing a painting that will become the gatefold art for the vinyl jacket, as well as the CD booklet centerfold, and a poster for the LP version. Tinnemans is one of the best of the best today and we're very pleased to be working with him. I've known Ketola for ages, and it was the most natural thing in the world to use him as our graphics guy when we found out he was working with NWN bands.
Luxi: Making a cover song album isn't anything new these days because so many bands have already made one; Necrodeath, Iced Earth, Deceased, Slayer, Metallica and the list goes on and on. I guess it doesn't disturb you that much if people say that it is somehow 'trendy,' or whatever, to record a cover album simply because the songs you, as Ares Kingdom, wanted to cover aren't the type of songs that many other bands would be interested in covering anyway. Would it be correct to say you don't give a flying fuck what others might think of it?
Chuck: The only bands in that list I'm aware of doing an album of covers are Metallica and Necrodeath. I don't follow those other bands and so have no idea. Nah, we don't care what people think about what we've done. It's true much of the material on Veneration is obscure enough that many of our fans won't know the source material, so hopefully we'll draw positive attention to those old bands the way Metallica did for Diamond Head.
Luxi: Veneration will be released both as a CD and an LP on NWN! Productions. Is there a release date set for these releases yet?
Chuck: Although the final mix is scheduled for next week, the release will probably not happen until after the NWN Fest in November. Tinnemans still has to finish a couple of art elements, too.
Luxi: The main focus for Ares Kingdom is, of course, getting Veneration released but I would like to talk about Ares Kingdom's third studio album, if you don't mind? How do things stand at the moment?
Chuck: I have approximately 80% of it written and ready to start working on with Mike and the band, which we'll do this fall. We have one more, quick project, especially for the NWN Fest, then its full speed ahead with new material. Since I'm the only one in the band that writes music, part of the rationale behind doing Veneration was to give me some breathing space in which to write new material. Just like the old days, I agonize over every riff, arrangement and lyric, sometimes for months on end, so there's no shortcut.
Luxi: Both of Ares Kingdom's previous albums, 2006's Return to Dust, as well as 2010's Incendiary, were received very well among the Metal community. How much pressure is on your shoulders regarding Ares Kingdom's next studio album? Do you feel like you should somehow top what you have done in the past and write even better songs and even better lyrics for the next full-length release?
Chuck: My writing habits and standards haven't changed one iota since 1987, and I don't think about how well our next project will be received. You'll just have to have faith in me and the band. :)
Luxi: Could you reveal a bit more about some of the new as yet unfinished songs or riffs or other elements and how this new stuff is going to sound? Don't hesitate to throw in a couple of well-chosen superlatives either if you feel so inclined ;o)
Chuck: Frankly it's shaping up to be a refinement of what we've done up until now. You can take that as meaning from Return to Dust through Incendiary, but we all have not inconsiderable musical pasts to draw upon, so the breadth of the songs is going to be deeper, while at the same time being familiar. It's not like we're going to break character and record a 20-minute prog Metal marathon.
Luxi: Do you have certain moments in your life when you feel so drained by the creative process that you have felt like giving up and just concentrating on living a regular family life without any pressures from your devoted and loyal fans?
Chuck: Nah, I've tried that already, but the urge to create music is inescapable for me. I was exhausted after OFC but never gave up music, choosing instead to push forward with Vulpecula, which was less chaotic in terms of daily life. Even when Mike and I started AK in 1996 it wasn't 'full speed ahead.' That moment didn't come until around 2001 or so, after Doug and Alex were solidly installed in the line-up, and we were secure in our chemistry. Now Ares Kingdom is more important to us than any of our previous bands ever were, and we just can't conceive of life without AK. One of our advantages is also that we don't do this for a living, so for us it's different than your average road-dog touring band that simply has to pump out product to survive. We can afford to take time with things that other bands might not be able to.
Luxi: Lyric writing is not everyone's game and writing intellectual, interesting and mind-blowing lyrics is something that only a handful of people do well and you, Chuck, are on that small list, in my sincere opinion. Do you think that your wide knowledge about some of the most important historical events has been one of the things that have allowed you to have the right weapons to come up with above average lyrics for Ares Kingdom?
Chuck: Thanks very much. Certainly my interests and education have found an outlet in my lyrics. I was always more intrigued and inspired by the old Metal bands that took time with their lyrics and attempted to say something significant, so when I started doing this myself, it was the most natural thing in the world to continue their tradition. I'm glad people notice.
Luxi: When you are about to start to write lyrics for Ares Kingdom, what are some of the key elements that you try to keep in your mind?
Chuck: I always start with a topic. If it's history, I'll have researched it to death, which in turn usually activates my artistic side, which translates some of the academic information into lyric form. There's a bridge between the two, and I don't always control when it appears, but have simply learned to be ready when it does. It may begin with a single line, phrase, or perhaps even descend from a quote. Often it tumbles out from there and gets refined along the way. I've always loved writing with metaphor, too, and try to work some of that into my lyrics.
Luxi: How has Ares Kingdom's songwriting process changed over the years? Do you feel like each member of the band contributes to it now more equally than ever before, or are you still that main motor behind both song and lyric writing, as you used to be in the past?
Chuck: Nothing has changed in our arrangement really. I still write all the music. Mike is the first person to get a hold of the new stuff I finish, and he and I discuss what I had in mind as it was written. Of course we've been together so long that I hear his playing in my head as I compose and so know what to expect. The fun part is when he actually gets a hold of what I wrote and does something I wasn't expecting and alters the mood of the riff or passage. It's one of those wonderful variables I can't define but can always count upon. Alex and Doug have complete freedom with their parts once I teach them the basic riffs. For lyrics, yeah, that's all me.
Luxi: NWN! Productions have been treating Ares Kingdom really well over the years, putting all their trust and faith 100% into the band, which can really be seen on their professionally done products. When you eventually chose this label I am sure you wanted Ares Kingdom to be one of their top priority artists. Do you think NWN! Productions have truly outdone themselves what comes to the marketing, promoting, etc. of their artists and releases?
Chuck: Mike and I have traditionally had a hard time finding a stable or trustworthy label for our music, so when the opportunity arose with NWN, we recognized they could be a permanent home for us, which gave us the ability to turn our attention completely to the music. We have an excellent working relationship with NWN that gets better and stronger with each passing year.
Luxi: What type of effort do you expect to get from Yosuke of NWN! Productions when he's going to launch a new Ares Kingdom selection, like the forthcoming album?
Chuck: He'll do his best as usual, and we'll get out there and promote the hell out of ourselves as well.
Luxi: Does Yosuke listen to all the ideas and hopes you have, as far as Ares Kingdom is concerned? Or do you think he knows you guys so well already that he pretty much knows already what you guys expect him to do for the band?
Chuck: He listens to every idea we have. In terms of musical releases, he's never once refused or balked at what we want to do, which says a lot about his faith in Ares Kingdom. He's always gone the extra mile for us, and we're grateful.
Luxi: Ares Kingdom has also done a respectful amount of gigs over these past two or three years. You have done the NWN! fest twice in Berlin, Germany, the Rites of Darkness Volume III fest, the Chaos in Tejas fest and many more. Now there's also the NWN! fest Volume III coming up for you on November 9th of this year in Berlin, Germany and this is your third time participating at that festival. I have never been to that festival myself, so would you tell all of us NWN! Fest virgins what it is like, from your point of view? German people are known for their very well organized festivals, so I guess this festival is hardly any exception to that rule...
Chuck: 2011 was a quiet year for us, though Rites of Darkness was a major highlight. 2012 has been busier, not least because in the midst of playing those shows we were also plugging away at Veneration.
Yeah, NWN is a well-organized festival. YK and Patrick (Iron Bonehead) are the driving forces behind it and do a great job. Organizing a bunch of extreme metal bands for one show in Europe is like herding a bunch of feral cats, but somehow it always comes together with few hitches... at least so far! :)
Luxi: What kind of a set list are you thinking of playing at NWN! Vol. III?
Chuck: We'll showcase some songs from the forthcoming Veneration, as well as play the last few songs we've never done in Europe. We'll also do two Varathron covers from the band's demo days, and welcome to the stage Stefan Necroabyssious to do vocals. It's going to be a very special moment.
Luxi: What kind of things will you be focusing on in 2013? Trying to grow your fan base a bit more and hoping to get Ares Kingdom to the next level?
Chuck: 2013 will see us focus on all the new material I have ready. A couple of higher profile shows are in the works, but those shouldn't cause too much of a distraction from the new music.
Luxi: Have you ever thought of resurrecting one your old bands, either Order From Chaos or Vulpecula? People still seem to have an interest in them, even nowadays. Or is resurrecting either band simply out of the question and Ares Kingdom the only band you will focus on?
Chuck: Nah, no interest in resurrecting the old bands. There's no point in bringing back Vulpecula, as it never played live in the first place. OFC had its moment in 2010, but there's just nothing more to say with those old bands. They belong to the ages. Ares Kingdom is all any of us are really interested in.
Luxi: As all the Order From Chaos releases seem to be kind of hard to track down nowadays, how about a luxurious OFC box set, hand-numbered, including all of OFC's releases, either on vinyl or CD (or both), with some bonuses and some special items included? This could be even just one time print only; you snooze, you lose! Supposedly there's already been some sort of discussions going on about this between NWN! Records and ex-members of OFC, correct?
Chuck: Yeah, we're slowly working on a box set retrospective for the OFC stuff that will finalize the band's discography in one place. Although there is absolutely no unreleased studio stuff, there are rare photos and things that the fans may enjoy seeing, so we'll profile that stuff.
Luxi: Back to Ares Kingdom for the last couple of questions. Is there still something that you'd like to achieve with this band in the coming years, like being able to do a 2-3 week tour somewhere on this globe?
Chuck: At this point we're focused on recording the best albums we can. We'll never achieve 'Metal darling' status among journalists or fans for a variety of reasons, but then again OFC never did, either, yet it still managed to gain fans and respect even after it disbanded. AK has no plans to disband, so we'll see where a solid focus on our music takes us.
Luxi: After Ares Kingdom is no more, how would you like people to remember Ares Kingdom?
Chuck: An archetype with integrity and discipline.
Luxi: I think that is all for now. I want to sincerely thank you, Chuck, for your time that you put into answering my questions, and to wish both you and Ares Kingdom all the best with all your future endeavors. Let the last words belong to you...
Chuck: Thanks for the great support through the years. Everyone check our website www.areskingdom.com for updates, media files, and merchandise. Die hard!
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