Interview with guitarist Brian Tatler
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 13, 2019
NWOBHM legends Diamond Head hardly need an introduction, do they? Many of us so-called old-timers, who have been following them since the beginning, surely remember the band for their early albums like Lightning to the Nations (1980), Borrowed Time (1982) and Canterbury (1983), considering them their best works to date while some of us got to know the band when Metallica covered the song "Am I Evil?" for the B-side of the Creeping Death EP, released in 1984. In 1985, the band sadly disbanded, as things did not progress as they would have liked.
Five years later, guitarist Brian Tatler and vocalist Sean Harris decided to resurrect the band, with new guys Karl Wilcox on drums and Eddie Moohan on bass. This lineup released the band's fourth album, Death and Progress, in 1993, which featured Megadeth's Dave Mustaine on the track "Truckin" plus a co-write and guest appearance from Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi on the track "Starcrossed". The album's release date was planned around the time Diamond Head opened for Metallica and Megadeth at Milton Keynes National Bowl. Unfortunately, they split up again in 1994.
In 2000, Brian and Sean gave Diamond Head another chance, which brought the band their first ever chance to play in the USA. The relationship didn't last long, and Brian and Sean decided to go in separate directions. In 2003, Brian recruited Nick Tart as the band's new vocalist and this cooperation resulted in two full-length albums, All Wil Be Revealed (2005) and What's in Your Head? (2007). This fruitful period also included a 22-date European tour with Megadeth, followed by tours and festival appearances with such names as Thin Lizzy, Europe and "The Big 4" at Sonisphere in UK and France. Vocalist Nick Tart emigrated to Australia in 2008, which made it hard for the remaining members to carry on.
In 2014, Danish-born Rasmus Bom Andersen impressed Brian so much with his vocal skills that he was hired to replace Nick Tart. Diamond Head have been a well-oiled machine ever since. Things have been happening for them, like successful tours and festival shows and two very well-received albums, Diamond Head (2016) and The Coffin Train (2019).
Diamond Head visited Helsinki, Finland, on November 5th, supporting Black Star Riders and when memorable events happen, The Metal Crypt always wants to join the party.
Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Tatler...
Luxi: First off, welcome to Finland.
Brian: Thank you. It's good to be here. As you may have read, we haven't been to Finland since 1983 when we did two dates opening for Hanoi Rocks.
Luxi: How much do you remember from those shows?
Brian: I'll tell you what I remember. I'm not sure, but I think we played in Kristiansand (Kristiansand is a city in southern Norway—Luxi). We flew in. We were on a prop plane, a little eight-seater propeller plane. We weren't on a jet. I remember it was a festival. We had to drive through the crowd to get backstage. The van kept pulling up behind people who were standing, watching the band on before and then they turned around. They realized there's a van behind them and they'd have to get out of the way. We slowly moved forward till we got backstage. Then I remember watching Hanoi Rocks and thought they were really good. Mike Monroe was climbing up the scaffolding and hanging and, "Don't you ever leave me, baby," and all that.
Luxi: Doing his usual thing.
Brian: He was good. Then we did a gig the second night in a club. When they went on, their bass drum pedal broke so they had to borrow ours. They come running backstage or something or the roadie did, and said, "Can we borrow your bass drum pedal because ours has just broke?" You can't do a gig without a bass drum pedal.
Luxi: That's very true.
Brian: I think it had snapped. That's what I remember. I remember there were lots of girls there as well. I was 23, so it was a nice time.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Luxi: I can imagine. I also read that you had an unfortunate little setback on your way from Hamburg to Roskilde, Denmark, when a truck broke down on the bridge, blocking all the traffic for four hours, which prevented you arriving at the venue (Gimle) on time...
Brin: Yeah, a lorry had turned over and it blocked the whole bridge, so we hit traffic about 2:00 in the afternoon. We were there for four hours, solid, never moved. Then when it finally got going, it was very slow because it'd been like 20-mile tailback by this point. We were late to the gig. We were supposed to be there at, say, 3:30 PM. We got there 20 past 8:00 PM. We set up in 15 minutes, went straight on, didn't get changed, did four songs and then get off.
Luxi: So, you just plugged in and let go?
Brian: Yes, just as soon as we'd set up. We did four songs and then packed it down and got out of there. It was a long day because, of course, we hadn't planned for that. We'd set up at 11:00 in the morning. Instead of it taking, I think, three hours or four hours, it took eight. It took maybe over eight hours. It's life, you know?
Luxi: Well, yeah. Always expect the unexpected. How has this tour been otherwise for you?
Brian: Great! It's really good. Black Star Riders and the crew are nice guys. We were getting on, there's been no ego-type problems. We're enjoying it. It's nice to play to the crowds in places we haven't played before. None of these guys have been to Finland before. It's only me and I've only been once. It's a real adventure. Everybody was excited about coming out on tour. We're promoting the new album. It's great, great. It's gone really well. This is a nice venue tonight.
I really enjoyed the one in, what was it called, simply Oslo. We did a couple of smaller ones but there's been a couple of really big ones as well. It's going well. This is about gig number seven, maybe, something like that.
Luxi: And you still have many more shows to go.
Brian: Yes. Well, we go back to England to do a gig in the UK, Hard Rock Hell and then we come back to join the tour. Then we go back to do another gig in the UK and then finish the tour. It's a long way to go, yes.
NEW ALBUM: THE COFFIN TRAIN
Luxi: You have your eighth studio album out, The Coffin Train, which is a really, really good album from you guys.
Brian: Great, thank you.
Luxi: In fact, I've been listening to it a lot. My first question about this album is related to the album title; where did you get the idea to name the album The Coffin Train?
Brian: It was our singer Ras' idea. We were trying to come up with titles. I sent him some and he sent me some. He came up with The Coffin Train and I said, "What's The Coffin Train?" He said, "Well, I've had a dream about this train coming towards me. It was full of body parts, like the carriages were all coffins—big coffins, full of body parts and lots of things." He said, "It was just like a nightmare dream kind of thing." He wrote that lyric and we kept that title. We looked at the titles we had, some titles and album titles and then I started to think, "Which would make a better cover?"
We had "Shades of Black" and "Belly of the Beast" and things like that. I think we both agreed that The Coffin Train is the most powerful. We could have a train on the cover. It's been done before. A couple of bands used trains, Motörhead, The Darkness and stuff. I thought, "I could picture it." We did some sketches and we looked on the net. We found a couple of different artists. Dave Mustaine mentioned he knew an artist in California called Travis Smith. We sent him our ideas. I've never met the guy, but he said he went out and took pictures of old steam trains and things. There must've been a railyard by where he lives. He took a lot of photos, whatever, do what you do and then sent them over. We just thought, "Brilliant. That was it." He did a fantastic job on the artwork. I really like it. I was very impressed. I think it's the best cover we've had since probably Borrowed Time or something.
Luxi: Yeah, the album cover of The Coffin Train is dark, very dark actually.
Brian: Yes. It suits the music, doesn't it?
Luxi: Yes. Actually, the title track is one of my personal favorite songs off the album, too, with its heavy, Sabbath vibe.
Brian: It's my favorite.
Luxi: Also, I really like this semi-Doom Metal sounding track, "Shades of Black".
Brian: Yes, I like it. I like "Messenger" as well.
CHRIS CORNELL CONNECTION
Luxi: What's the story behind "Shades of Black"?
Brian: Lyrically, it's about Chris Cornell. It's because we were to do a gig with Soundgarden in 2017 at Rocklahoma in the US. Chris died and then Soundgarden pulled out. Ras is a huge Chris Cornell fan. He was in grief for about a week. He thought he was going to get the chance to meet him. Anyway, Ras wrote that lyric as a sort of catharsis, get it out of your system, do something constructive with the grief in a way. He wrote that lyric. If you look at the lyrics and you know it's about Chris, you'll see a little "Rusty Cage". There's a few little nods in there. Musically, I had that riff and I built it. I made a demo in 2016 at home and then I gave it to Ras and he worked the lyrics to it. It just worked out really well. I think it sounds great.
Luxi: Yes, I agree. What about the songwriting process for The Coffin Train? Do you think that making this album was more like a joint venture of the whole band than perhaps some other songwriting processes of your earlier albums?
Brian: Probably not. I think the last album, I did demos for everything. In some cases, I'd only have a riff. I would come and I'd say, "Rock up this," and we'd jam it. Some of the songs really evolved in the rehearsal room. We'd do blocks of eight hours a day because I think you could really get into a song and work on it and not worry, "We've only got two hours or three hours," or something. I said, "Let's do eight hours a day and then you can go over." You find the magic almost, like it might only start happening in the seventh hour or something but at least you were there together. Sometimes, you'd work and work and you'd come back to it and you try. That worked really well on the last one. This one, we said we'll try it slightly different in that me and Ras got together quite a bit and we reworked some of the songs. Sometimes, I'd have a song idea and Ras would say, "It doesn't have a chorus or something." We'd try to write a chorus and we'd get the songs a bit further toward completion before we went to rehearsal. We'd have a bit more of a frame and then, it would be obvious if it was working or not working. Then we'd say, "Right, that bit needs to be longer, or the drums need to do this or it's too slow or too fast."
We built it to get the songs to sound as good as possible. Also, we would record rehearsals and we'd listen to the CDs. Ras had copies of the rehearsal demos and we'd listen and think, "that bit is not right." Again, we'd make notes. I'd write out the arrangements and add things from time to time. Also, it would give Ras a chance to start coming up with melodies and lyrics. It just built and built slowly, took time. We started writing for this album in 2016 and it took nearly two years on and off, but we did a lot of touring.
It's not like we do it every day, we just do it now and again. In a way, that's a way of coming back to it fresh and then you can be really critical. You haven't heard it for two months and then you listen again and think, "Do I still like it? Is it still working for me?", or, "Should I change it?" That can be good having some time and distance.
MR. CONFIDENT RASMUS ANDERSEN
Luxi: When Rasmus Bom Andersen joined the band in 2014, do you think he brought "a fresh set of ears" to the band, kind of bringing in a new way to approach the songwriting process?
Brian: I suppose so because he, again, is a new guy coming with a lot of new ideas. He's younger. He's probably listened to more modern Metal than I do so he's coming slightly more from that camp. I'm probably a bit more into older stuff, but it just seems to work. We don't clash on ideas. There's enough mutual respect that I will listen to what he's saying, and he will listen to what I'm saying. If I feel strongly this is not right, we don't do it, that kind of thing.
He has added a lot of good ideas and he's also the producer on this album, but he's come into it with a kind of overview where all he's trying to do is get the best out of Diamond Head, make the most of what we've got and he appreciates that Lightning to the Nations classic album like Diamond head fans. We hark back to that a little bit and we have this thing we call a brief where we try to say, "Does it sound like Diamond Head?"
You could come up with a song right now and you could do it and you think, "It's okay but it don't sound like Diamond Head." Diamond Head has a style. The riffs and certain chords and things have to be there, really, for it to sound like Diamond Head because otherwise, you'd start going in any direction and it loses a little bit. He's very good at that and picking out odd things. I like that bit. We worked on that. I like to provide a lot more material than we actually need and then we can be fussy, we can say, "We're not going to use that, we use this one now."
Luxi: Like picking all the best parts...
Brian: All the best parts, yes. Every album is always all the best stuff you've got. I keep everything. I might have an idea for 10 years and eventually, it starts bearing fruit but sometimes, you just think, "That's not going to work, this one." I shelve it and come back to it.
Luxi: In some interview, Rasmus has said he had never heard of Diamond Head before he joined the band, so I guess he did have quite a bit of homework to do regarding the band's material, how his voice fit in the band, especially as far as the band's earlier material was concerned.
Brian: Yes. he did.
Luxi: Was he a kind of shy guy, afraid if he can do your old material justice?
Brian: No. He's actually a very confident guy. He knows he's got a good voice and there was nothing in the catalog that was going to be difficult. It's not like it's super difficult to sing. He knew he could do a good job. I was looking for a certain tone in a singer that would suit Diamond Head, that would suit the catalog. I think he came in, like you said, he didn't know the band and he didn't know the material, but the job was available. I think he listened to all the stuff and made the decision, "Yes, this is a good band, I'd like to do this," so he did. He went through all the material.
He could sort of see why people still love Diamond Head and why some of these songs have lasted 40 years and what works live, what works well with the punters. He came in at a good point and refocused us a little bit. We may have lost our way a little bit in the past 10 years and I think Ras has helped bring it back on track.
Luxi: When he did some of Diamond Head's first live performances, did you notice a lot of pressure on him back because he had pretty big boots to fill, in this case, Sean Harris'?
Brian: Yes, I think so. I knew he could sing, he's a great singer so I think it was just a case of, "Don't fuck up the old material, do a good job. Don't piss the fans off because if they want to hear "Am I Evil?", or "It's Electric," then you don't want them to stand there thinking, "I don't like the new singer, he's ruined it for me," or something. I think it was a case of respectfully learning the old material and doing it as good as can be and in that style a little bit rather than, "I'm going to stamp my authority and it's all about me now." No, I think he got tons of respect for Sean and Nick and he wanted to continue the legacy, improve the legacy, but by no means piss off the fans we already have. He wants them to come backstage and go, "Brilliant." That is fortunately what's happened.
2000: RESURRECTION OF DIAMOND HEAD
Luxi: That's great to hear. What was the real spark for you to resurrect Diamond Head in 2000? Did you feel that you still had some unfinished business to do so to speak?
Brian: Okay, let me think.
Luxi: Quite a few things, I believe.
Brian: I've been doing Radio Moscow and I've been running the studio for five years. I hadn't got a deal with it. It was kind of lean times, that's number one.
Number two is Sean had done an album with Robin George called Notorious and it turned out to be a very, very expensive album to make and then he didn't want to tour it, so it all fell apart. Suddenly, Sean was available, if you like, to deal with another project because Notorious was done, dead. The guy who had been managing the situation, Pete Winkelman, put Sean back in touch with me to say, "Do you want to do another Diamond Head album? Maybe you should get back together with Brian."
I think they thought it could be done quite quickly. It was just a case of, "We'll do it as a project, like a new album and then Sean could pick up his advance from his second album with Warner Chappell." Sean said, "Yes, l can do that. Ain't going to be that difficult." It turned out to be a two-year project. It was more complicated than he probably imagined, but then Sean is quite difficult to work with.
Then number three is Metallica, by this point, pretty much the biggest Rock band in the world. They constantly named Diamond Head in hundreds and hundreds of interviews; they're playing three Diamond Head songs live from time to time. It's on many, many releases.
So, the name Diamond Head is coming up the ladder again thanks to this influential band, the biggest Rock band in the world. It just seemed to make perfect sense to come back and do a new Diamond Head album so that's how we got back together. I was offered a publishing deal and we continued and did the album Death and Progress, supported Metallica at Milton Keynes Bowl, did some good things, but then it crumbled in 1994. It didn't last very long. I don't think Sean I think intended for it to go a long-term project. He just wanted to, in a way, collect his publishing in advance, do an album, then go back to maybe the original plan. It didn't work like that. Then when it got really difficult in 2003, I decided to get rid of Sean and continued Diamond Head without him and get a new singer.
NEW WAVES OF BRITISH HEAVY METAL IN THE HORIZON
Luxi: Many see Diamond Head as one of the pioneers of the whole NWOBHM phenomenon that was born in the late seventies when Punk Rock was still ruling England. How do you see Diamond Head's role in this NWOBHM thing that started shaping up in the late seventies?
Brian: Initially, there was pre-Punk. We founded in '76 and we just wanted to be like our heroes, which are the classic '70s bands. That was the best time for Rock music, in my opinion. You had Zeppelin, Purple, Sabbath, AC/DC, Rush, UFO, Van Halen, Queen, Lizzy. The list goes on. Lots of incredible music. I just wanted to do something like that. I just wanted to be in a cool Rock band. A year later, Punk Rock had happened. I thought, "Okay. Bands just playing really fast, powerful music, getting on stage. You don't have to be a virtuoso, you can get away with simple songs." We were writing things like "Helpless" and "It's Electric" and quite powerful songs.
By the time the New Wave of British Heavy Metal happened in '79, we were perfectly timed for that. We were 19 years old, we'd been going three years, we were starting to do gigs. We were perfectly timed for the new wave of British Heavy Metal. Suddenly, all around the country, we realized there were other bands doing this. There was Maiden, there was Leppard, Saxon, Samson, Budgie, you name it. There was suddenly a whole bunch of fans who were following these bands, Budgie, Jaguar, Raven and whatever. We were just suddenly part of that. I thought, this is a brilliant opportunity for us to get noticed and get a record deal.
WHO WAS EVIL IN 1979?
Luxi: I found this one very old, black and white live video clip on YouTube where you were performing "Am I Evil? at West Bromwich College in 1979. It said this clip is from the first-ever filmed performance by Diamond Head. What kind of recollections do you still have from that live performance?
Brian: That was at college. I can't remember how we got it, but somebody said, "We can go and do a video and the students will film you and you don't have to pay for it or anything." It was in Birmingham or West Bromwich. We just drove over, which is about eight miles away, set up, and they filmed us. For them, it was just an exercise to film a band. They all had their headphones and all that. We just played live. At the end of the day, it was meant to be a promo-type thing, but we never managed to pick up a copy of the tape. I didn't even have a tape player like a VHS or a Betamax or anything. I didn't really worry about it. We were just onto the next thing.
So, scroll forward, years and years, maybe 30 years and the guy who had run the college found the tape in his loft and got in touch through the website and said, "I've got a tape of you guys from 1979. Do you want me to send it to you?" He sent me the u-matic copy, the master copy with the three songs. I had never seen it before. I had it transferred to DVD and watched it for the first time around maybe 2015 or something and I thought it was fantastic to see. It was on fire.
Luxi: When watching this live clip from those early days, I don't wonder at all why Metallica became so heavily influenced by Diamond Head's material. The young Metallica guys just loved the band, so much they loved to cover your songs ("Am I Evil?", "The Prince", "Sucking My Love", "Helpless") at their gigs when they were starting out.
Brian: I guess they did about five or six live.
Luxi: Also, I don't think I'm the first one to say so, but whenever I hear Metallica's debut album, Kill 'Em All, I can hear some riffs that remind me of Diamond Head here and there. The band's influence on Kill 'Em All is undeniable, in my opinion, at least.
Brian: There's a bit of "Dead Reckoning" in there and "It's Electric". There's a few bits. How they get from, say, a bridge to a chorus or something out of the verse. Little bits you think, "That's what Diamond Head would do," that and certain chords. There's a little bit in there. "Four Horsemen" is a tiny bit Diamond Head and "Seek and Destroy."
Luxi: Have any of the Metallica guys ever told how much your band meant to them when they were just a bunch of teenagers and wanted to put up a band of their own which would sound cool as Diamond Head?
Brian: Well, Lars obviously was a big fan. He stayed with me, he stayed with Sean. He came to rehearsals and he'd come to gigs with us and things like that. I've known Lars a long time. I've known Lars since he was seventeen before he even played the drums or had a band or anything. They've all said how important Diamond Head were to them. Covering four Diamond Head songs, that's very flattering, and playing them live hundreds and hundreds of times. I always think it's great that we've been an influential band. The fact that Metallica have covered us has given us tons of credibility and kept the name alive, spread it around the world.
Luxi: In the early eighties, you played with such names Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Saxon and so many others.
Brian: No, we didn't open for Saxon. We never played with Saxon until last year.
Luxi: Okay, opening up for Maiden, Sabbath and AC/DC anyway.
Brian: Yes, for those three bands.
GOOD MANAGERS MAKE THINGS HAPPEN FOR YOU
Luxi: Many of those bands that you played with some 40 years ago became big names in the music scene. Do you think Diamond Head suffered from "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" and that is why you never got the same success and fame, as let's say, Saxon, for example?
Brian: No. We didn't have good management. I think that was our downfall. We had a local guy managing us who had never done it before. He put a bit of money into the band but he didn't have any contacts. He didn't know how the game worked. We didn't go to the States, we never played in the States. We never even toured Europe, really, until '83. We did one tour and that was it, really. When the band fell apart, it split up during Canterbury, the third album. We split in half and then it lasted another maybe year and a half. It's not just management, but it didn't help. I think Def Leppard had Peter Mensch, for example. Iron Maiden had Rod Smallwood. We had a guy called Reg Fellows.
I think it wouldn't have been better if we had been advised better and somebody went to bat for our team who'd done it before and had a bit of expertise in that area. I think a lot of bands need good management. There aren't enough good managers out there. You're lucky to get a good manager.
Luxi: That might be so true indeed. What about next year? How does 2020 look for Diamond Head?
Brian: Good. We've got a lot of festivals and we're doing a cruise. We've got five dates with Saxon next year. It's all looking good for next year. It's the 40th anniversary of the debut album, Lightning to the Nations. We're going to do something around that, maybe some shows where we play the whole album.
Luxi: Now that would be such a cool idea... Wow!
Brian: Yes. I think we'll be doing that.
Luxi: Well I think that's all I had in my mind. Thank you for the interview, Brian, and all the best for tonight's show as well.
Brian: Thank you.
Luxi: I am sure it's going to be great.
Brian: It'll be great.
|Other information about Diamond Head on this site|
|Review: Lightning to the Nations|
|Review: The Coffin Train|
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