Interview with guitarist Bill Tsamis
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 8, 2013
California's legendary Warlord released their third full-length studio album in 2013, The Holy Empire, and it has been receiving rave reviews all over the world. The album was released by Sons of a Dream Music, LLC, a company founded by William J Tsamis and Mark Zonder, to produce and promote the music of Warlord.
Bill Tsamis is a multi-talented instrumentalist, composer and one of the founding members of Warlord and he is as excited about this new album as any father could be about his first-born child. The Metal Crypt contacted Bill to ask about this new Warlord opus plus, of course, about the band's current and future plans as far as future releases, touring, etc.
Luxi: Hi Bill, how's life? Has it gotten busier now that your new album, The Holy Empire, is out? I'm sure interviews have started pouring in and people are asking about the album because of the strong buzz it has generated around the world?
Bill: Hello Luxi, nice to be here. Life has always been busy for me; everyone knows the personal issues that I have faced. Having said that, indeed the response that we have received for The Holy Empire has been phenomenal and we're very excited about that. We're also extremely busy with preparing the live DVD that was shot during our appearances in Athens, Greece as well as with preparing the new Warlord album; the first one that will feature our new singer Nicholas.
Luxi: How long did it take to put The Holy Empire together and was it an easy process for you, compared to some of your previous projects?
Bill: The Holy Empire took a little over a year to complete and it started life as a studio-only project. You have to remember that, at the time and given my health issues, I did not even know if I was going to be alive to see it being finally released. So the process started out very difficult and as it was progressing it became gradually easier. However, I have to say that, due to its special circumstances, this probably was the most difficult project I have completed. Not only I was seriously ill when I started it, but also I had to learn to use all new equipment in the process. Obviously, as time passed and I got better everything fell into place. The music always exists in my mind in an almost complete state; it's the mechanics of committing it to a record that is the difficult part.
Luxi: How much did each member of Warlord contribute to the songwriting process of this new record, and did it turn out the way you wanted, without any compromises?
Bill: As always, all the songs were written, in complete form, by me. The way we work is that I prepare a rough track, send it over to Mark and he puts drums into it. Mark understands my music completely, so apart from a rough description of how I think the drums ought to be, he needs nothing other than a bit of tweaking afterwards. It has always been this way from the early days. I can't work with anyone else in the way I work with Mark. He just knows EXACTLY what to do. The rest of the album's contributors - Philip, Rick and Giles - received their parts and they returned them ready. In Rick's case he contributed some great ideas regarding harmony structures and these were incorporated in the final product.
As for if we achieved what we wanted to do, I would say without hesitation; YES. As Warlord, we like to break new musical ground. In the case of The Holy Empire, I had envisioned epic music in a grand scale, something not quite like anything else in the heavy metal genre. We wanted something that transcends genres and transmits the epic nature of a film score. Having our own studios and an engineer that understood what we were trying to accomplish, gave us the ability to work in our own personal way. So, definitely no compromises were made!
Luxi: I am curious to know what the experience of writing and recording the title track, "The Holy Empire," was like. The song lasts over 11 minutes, so obviously it took some time and nerves to get it finished properly, correct?
Bill: I will say it was a most fulfilling experience. I was able to use orchestras and choirs and present a sprawling arrangement with multiple layering. On a creative level, it was an amazing process building it block-by-block and layer-by-layer and we ended up using about 120 separate tracks, most of which were taken up by the orchestra and choir. Obviously, there was a steep learning curve and, in order to realize the vision I had, my studio (and I along with it) was thrust into the 21st century rather abruptly. That made the process a bit challenging at first, but overall I did present exactly what I had in mind.
Luxi: Do you feel that this new album takes epic and pompous to the next level? There is no denying the epic feel incorporated into many of the songs on The Holy Empire, songs like "70,000 Sorrows," Thy Kingdom Come" and "Kill Zone."
Bill: I believe I understand how you are using the word "pompous" but I'd have to disagree with that characterization. Pompous is "wanna-be" epic that is devoid of meaning. So no, I don't think any song is pompous on The Holy Empire. To answer the remainder of your question, yes that was the intention. Epic in a grand scale akin to feeling evoked by the classic compositions found in movie soundtracks, as I mentioned before. You could even call The Holy Empire a "Heavy Metal Soundtrack" album. Yes, I believe we brought things to the "next level." That was the whole point of the album; to "break the mold" of what Heavy Metal music can achieve, how it can be presented, yet still contain meaning, melody and originality.
Luxi: The Holy Empire contains a couple of very old Warlord songs ("Father" and "Thy Kingdom Come") that originally appeared on your unreleased 1985 demo. Since I have never heard those original versions, I am curious to know if, when you started reworking these songs for The Holy Empire, did you try to stay as loyal to the original compositions as possible or did you change a riff or two to make them flow better and give them the final touches that they may have been lacking for all these past years?
Bill: Actually, there is only one truly old Warlord song on this album and that is "City Walls of Troy," which is pretty much unchanged from its original form. The second one that would fit that characterization would be "Father," but it was extensively reworked and has a new arrangement. It is almost a new song although that isn't immediately evident on first listen. "Thy Kingdom Come," on the other hand, is just the title and a bit of the chorus that is similar to an old idea with the same name; so that song is brand new. To answer your question, it's important to point out that I carry riffs and song names, especially the ones that are very strong, such as "Thy Kingdom Come," with me for years. If a riff stays with me, it must be good, so when the time comes I use it. In that respect, all the songs, with the exception of the two I mentioned before, are brand new. There were just so many changes, arrangements and new lyrics, to the ideas that I had that there's nothing in common, from a completed composition point of view, with older creations bearing the same or similar names. As for "City Walls of Troy," this was a gift to the fans that have been asking for a long time for us to properly record it. I did not deviate from the original composition because I felt it complete as it was. As for "Father," the song deserved a reworking. Most people know that I composed that song in one afternoon after I lost my father but I felt there was so much more in this song than previously delivered. So reworking it in conjunction with Rick's amazing rendition, I think the song went to an altogether different level.
Luxi: You had quite a few quest musicians on The Holy Empire and they spiced things up nicely (i.e. Giles Avery, Barbara Pride Anderson, Hannah Anderson and The Trinity Choir). Do you see Warlord inviting guests for future recordings?
Bill: Although I do not know what the future holds, I am always open to exploration of new musical avenues. For example, on The Holy Empire, as we already discussed, I made extensive use of Virtual Instruments, thus I had an entire philharmonic orchestra at my disposal. Nothing is set in stone. If the music calls for something, we will use whatever we must to present the songs properly. It might be a different amplifier, a different guitar or a guest singer or singers, I cannot tell you right now. If the music takes me there, there's nothing that will say we won't.
Luxi: As I understand it, the response for The Holy Empire has been overwhelming. Metal fans really appreciate all the hard work you have put into this record and that must give you a lot of satisfaction with how The Holy Empire turned out. Is there any particular song, or songs, that make you especially proud of what you have achieved? I am sure it took a lot of time and patience to get everything just the way you wanted. Can you tell us about some of the efforts you put into this new record?
Bill: That is an extremely interesting question. Although it's very difficult to describe my exact mental process, I do hear the music, as I told you, in my head in an almost complete form. Once the music is recorded the "Warlord sound" is already there. The remainder is achieved by a master engineer, such as Phil Magnotti, to make sure that what I give him is reproduced exactly as I intended. Most of the sound however comes from how I play the guitar and how Mark plays the drums. You can tell it is "Warlord" you're listening to, even at rehearsal. You can easily hear it in the bonus track of the Japanese edition of The Holy Empire, which is a live rehearsal recording of "Aliens" from before the Keep-It-True XVI show in Germany.
As for which song is my favorite, well, I don't have one because I see them all in the same light. I've said before, all my songs are my children. I simply cannot pick a favorite!
Luxi: The Holy Empire has been released in several formats; cassette (which is already sold-out), CD, double vinyl and, of course, it's available as a digital download. How important is it to have this album available in multiple formats, serving both the old school and the new school fans that enjoy their music in different ways?
Bill: The cassette version was more of a "gift" to our fan club, the "Warlord Battle Choir," that deserved something special for their continuous support over the years and indeed, we produced it in the same way that we did every other version. Having said that, and as I have said so on numerous occasions, we do not believe in fans paying insane amounts of money to buy our music nor do we believe in making "limited editions." Everything we produce through our company, "Sons of a Dream Music," will always be available. Obviously, we cannot produce immense quantities and "flood" the market with Warlord music in all formats. However, we strive to keep a steady flow of physical formats available for everyone. The digital format is the wave of the future for many younger generation fans and that's why it was important for us to make everything available across almost all platforms; from iTunes to Amazon to Spotify, Pandora, last.fm, etc. We have about 99% of the platforms covered. What was VERY important, however, is that the music is delivered in the best possible quality on each platform. For that reason, we produced masters that cater to each platform's individual characteristics in order to create a seamless experience for every fan that may get more than one format. Gone are the days when, as struggling young musicians, we had to accept low production values. That's why we re-released Deliver Us with a new master, as well, to display what we really wanted the music to sound like back in the day despite our, then limited, means.
Luxi: Richard Anderson did some amazing vocal work on The Holy Empire, but his boots are now filled by Cypriot Nicholas Leptos. Why did you make a change in vocalists?
Bill: Rick did an amazing job on The Holy Empire and he brought the exact vocal tone I had envisioned for the entire album. However, just as I had to get Giles Lavery for "Kill Zone," as his vocals were best suited for that particular song, the same is true for the music I am composing right now. You have to remember that, for me, a vocalist is just another instrument. Unfortunately, unlike the guitar or keyboards, a voice has a set timbre and a set range and cannot always fit the music. In the case of the new material, Nicholas has just the right voice for it. I have had my eye on Nicholas for a long time but scheduling issues did not permit our collaboration. These issues are no longer a hindrance and Mark and I are very excited to have found a perfect "Damien King," who sounds the way we always wanted and with the range we required.
Luxi: What are some of Nicholas' best assets, as a vocalist? Does he have the understanding and skills to follow all the song structures perfectly?
Bill: First and foremost, every Warlord vocalist must understand the music and this is exactly what you're asking. Nicholas not only understands the music, but also fits it very well. His eastern Mediterranean background gives him the added benefit of understanding, and using well, the minor scales that are very characteristic of Warlord's music, which further adds to the impact I'd like the music to make. Besides that, he has a great tone, impressive range and can follow my musical train of thought very well, so, absolutely; he's got what it takes.
Luxi: Is Warlord his main priority from now on, or will he split time between Warlord and his two other bands, Arrayan Path and Astronomikon?
Bill: Luckily, there is no overlap between Warlord and Nicholas' other bands. It has a lot to do with the way the Warlord songwriting process goes, so there will be no issue there.
Luxi: I was just reading that you have a DVD in the works, and even a double live CD version from the same show (shows?). How are thing looking for these two releases at the moment?
Bill: The DVD/BluRay and 2CD live album is progressing quite nicely (although a bit slower than we expected). It's an amalgamation of the two shows in Athens, Greece; some from the first day and some from the second. We have an amazing company doing the editing called Take2 Entertainment (run by a musician, so he understands quite well what we need to show) and I can reveal to you now that, after a lot of thought, the mixing and the surround sound production will be run by the same person that was involved in creating the sound for such epic films as The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. So you can see, we want to present this is a way that is as perfect as possible!
Luxi: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? If so, does it become stressful, or even harmful, to the songwriting process because you demand too much from yourself, if you catch my meaning?
Bill: I am indeed a perfectionist when it comes to my music. Music is as much of a child to me as is my daughter and I treat it the same way. I want it to grow and become something important. That's why I strive to not have a single note out of place; something I call "no filler." That being said, I am also a pragmatist. I recognize that no creative work, no matter how perfect you try to make it, will ever be exactly the way it could be. I can draw the line once my main goals in writing a piece have been fulfilled. I also have had the luxury of revisiting some old songs and improving upon them (as discussed above) so, in that respect, I have been lucky to present, at least recently, the music on the scale that I wanted. The stress that you describe, I embrace, because it helps make the music better. It's not a hindrance; it's a blessing.
Luxi: What are some of your sources for inspiration when writing a new Warlord song? Do you go out to nature, read a book that make your imagination flow, watch a movie with colossal battle scenes, etc.?
Bill: Composition, to me, is an internal process. Music, as I mentioned previously, flows almost completely ready from within me. Most Warlord songs have an autobiographical element and deal with my interests, experiences and struggles. Therefore, I draw inspiration internally but try to create musical imagery that has a universal appeal and with which people can connect. Obviously, I am not alone in dealing with universal questions, nor I am the only person in the world that has faced struggles in one form or another. By putting the music and songs in a more universal context, more people connect with it and can allow it to express their own questions, joys and trials.
Luxi: Have you already started the writing process for the next Warlord release? Do you have a bunch of riffs recorded that you might end up using and do you expect it to be a full-length or just an EP?
Bill: Yes, the process has already started and it's going to be a full-length album. As I said earlier, I always carry riffs in my head, so I have always enough material to start writing complete songs. The only thing I can tell you now is that the next album is going to be a bit heavier and faster, without losing any of the Warlord sound elements that the fans always expect. With this next album, as with all the music I compose, I try to push the envelope a bit further, so you can expect something very powerful and epic. Nicholas is essential to that mix and adds the elements that I want in order to go into that direction.
Luxi: How does the festival season look for Warlord in 2014?
Bill: We cannot reveal details yet, although there will definitely be some performances. As Warlord, we do not concentrate on quantity but in quality! We'll release information when we are ready.
Luxi: How interactive is Warlord with their fans when playing live? I have never managed to catch a Warlord show myself, which is why I am asking this somewhat strange question...
Bill: A Warlord show is different from any other show because our fans are different from any other fans. They are in it for the music and so are we. Therefore, the interaction occurs at a different level. You will not see us jumping up and down on stage. Instead, we concentrate on providing the best possible performance to give the fans what they really came to hear; the music played as close to perfection as possible. The fans understand this as you can see from the reactions we got during our shows this past April. There were grown men crying! With these fans, there comes a sense of great responsibility, the requirement to give them, through the music, a fulfillment and the power of the music.
Luxi: You are a University professor, which obviously provides you a decent standard of living and the ability to do things in terms of music. Has it been easy or difficult for you to find the optimal balance between being a professor and a musician?
Bill: Since I became ill, I had to stop teaching and it was one of the hardest things I had to do. Obviously, I had to concentrate on restoring my health and music was instrumental in that. I am now a full time musician once more, so there are no choices to make between trades.
Luxi: What kinds of hopes do you have for Warlord? I assume there is still much that you'd like to achieve with this band in the future, correct?
Bill: As I have said many times publicly, as long as the fans want to hear new Warlord music, I will compose it. If there's no fan demand, I will keep on writing music for myself; it's who I am. As far as Warlord is concerned, there is indeed much I would like to create in the "Warlord vein." As a composer, I strive to take the path "least taken." I do not wish to rehash old material. Instead, I want to keep pushing musical boundaries and create new and exciting things. As much as people say, "everything has been done already," I tend to disagree. A musical piece is not only the chord progressions one uses, it's not merely a style, nor a melody. It's a combination of everything in conjunction with the emotional delivery. So, definitely yes, there's still much to accomplish.
Luxi: I think that is all I had in my mind for now, so I want to thank you sincerely for taking time to do this interview for The Metal Crypt. I wish you all the best with all your future endeavors. The last comments are yours...
Bill: I would like to thank you and The Metal Crypt for your support to Warlord. It is always very refreshing to receive a line of questioning in an interview that concentrates on the music.
And, of course, I always want to take some time to thank the fans. Without them we wouldn't have the following we've had for the last 30 years. Warlord has been a fantastic journey that doesn't look it's about to end any time soon, thanks to THEIR support!
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