Interview with bassist Brian Smith and vocalist Dave King
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: February 20, 2015
UK Metal heroes Battleaxe were among the first bands to sign with Music For Nations, a label headquartered in London and which released albums in Europe from bands like Metallica, Manowar, Savatage, Exciter, Tank and so on. Battleaxe was founded in 1979 (they were called Warrior back then but the name was changed to Battleaxe in 1981) and were found by Music For Nations just a few years later.
Battleaxe's debut album, Burn This Town, saw the light of day in 1983 (it was basically the band's demo tapes recorded at Guardian Studios in 1982) and its more successful follow-up, Power from the Universe, was released one year later, in 1984, and that was followed by a successful tour with Saxon.
In 1990 Battleaxe started recording their third album but ran out of funds. Contrary to rumors, Battleaxe never really broke up. They were on an extended hiatus until 2010 when they got back together with the intention of recording new music under the Battleaxe name. Recorded at Trinity Heights Studios in northern England and titled Heavy Metal Sanctuary, Battleaxe's third album was released in 2014 via SPV/Steamhammer.
The Metal Crypt contacted the band to ask about the new album, some past events related to the band and especially to clear up some of the "accurate" information out there that people consider as "stone-cold facts." Founding members Brian Smith (bass) and Dave King (vocals) took some time to answer to my questions.
Luxi: First off, could you tell the readers of The Metal Crypt how Battleaxe is doing these days? Do you feel like, after all you have gone through together, it is worth it to have Battleaxe back on its feet again?
Brian: It has been a long and uphill struggle to raise the band back to active status. For most bands our size the same is probably true. Remember, you have to compete with much larger bands that can afford to put on bigger shows and record with better facilities. We decided to make a video to an old track, "Chopper Attack," in 2007 after many, many years of inactivity. It was done on a whim really. We were not that interested in reforming Battleaxe at that time as we considered the Metal market very difficult, especially in the UK. That opinion changed, however. We didn't see each other again until 2010 when we were offered a chance to play Headbangers Open Air in Germany. We decided to reform to do that gig and use it as a test to see what king of response we would get. We were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reception we received and the general awareness of our music in Europe. After a while, and a few more festivals, we decided to reform and record a new album.
With that in mind we were convinced that a new album could stand up to the best with modern production. We did that in 1984 with Power from the Universe and were convinced that we could do it again.
Luxi: What kind of process was it to get Heavy Metal Sanctuary released? Do you believe in the power of the album title that Heavy Metal can be a true sanctuary where you can forget all the negative aspects of life? I mean, no matter how much your life might suck at times, playing/listening to Heavy Metal can wipe all your worries away or at least make you to forget them for a little while...
Brian: The project started at home with sequencers but soon got too large to complete with the existing equipment and after a long period of struggle and we decided to go into Fred Purcer's Studio in Newcastle to complete it, where we had access to state of the art gear. The album finally was finished in the studio though large amounts had been done at home and in rehearsal rooms. Luckily for us SPV/Steamhammer stepped in and made it possible to release the new album as well as re-release the two eighties albums as well. However there were many disagreements in the arrangements and the production especially between the drummer and the rest of us and a rift developed in the band.
Yes, the album's title is significant and if we can make peoples' lives just a little bit less stressful and feel a little happier, then we have achieved our goal and our justification to exist. I know that listening to Metal makes me feel better.
Luxi: Battleaxe's performance at the Keep It True Festival XVII in Germany in 2014 could be considered a turning point for the band. Were you totally surprised by Battleaxe's magnetism when you played in the front of this very devoted metal crowd?
Brian: We have been surprised by the response in Europe overall and, as at Headbangers Open Air, the response to the band at Keep It True was wonderful despite problems with the monitoring and hearing each other on stage, We were very well received with the crowd singing along to the old songs, "Ready to Deliver" and "Burn this Town" in particular. Unfortunately this was the last gig with the old drummer Paul as things came to a head after the gig and he left the band that day.
Luxi: For many once-disbanded groups playing these one-off shows at festivals like Keep It True in Germany has given enough reason to drag old corpses out of graves and start pumping new life into old Metal legends. What do you think is the magic of playing at that German metal festival? What is it like for a band to get a personal invitation from the festival organizer to play at Keep It True in particular?
Brian: These festivals are probably the lifeblood of Metal nowadays as there are far fewer places for bands to play than there were back in the 80's, particularly in the UK. The younger generation seems more interested in the origins of Metal music and when they start researching their favorite bands they find many of them were originally influenced by NWOBHM bands, especially Thrash, Speed and Power Metal. This has had a direct impact on bands like us as now we have a new generation of fans listening to the band, some of whom were not even born when the original albums were released.
Luxi: Going back in time quite a bit how were Battleaxe's years on Music For Nations (1983-84)? Do you feel they could have done more to promote Battleaxe and support the band?
Brian: They probably could have but they were a young company at the time and naturally they invested more in bands such as Metallica as this is where the Metal scene was going at the time. NWOBHM was already going out of fashion even though it was the main influence of the newer bands.
Luxi: You also did a tour in England supporting Saxon following the release of your second album Power from the Universe. What was the experience of that tour like you and what did it teach you about working, achieving success, tears and disillusionment about gaining fame and fortune?
Brian: The Saxon tour went very well for the band, although it was the last time we worked with guitarist Steve Hardy as he left the band for personal reasons after the tour. We found the Saxon crowd very responsive to the band and many of them have continued to support us. Working on the road like that does force you learn very fast but we always knew it wasn't going to be an easy path and very few bands make it big as the industry is quite fickle and the media are anti-Metal in general anyway.
Luxi: Back then you also played with such popular names as Anvil and Twisted Sister. Can you still remember some details from those shows and if you were treated well compared to the headlining acts?
Brian: The show you are referring to was the Leeds Queens Hall festival in 1983 and yes it was great fun to share the stage with these popular bands.
Luxi: According to one biography about Battleaxe, readers may get this potentially misleading feeling that Battleaxe wasn't that easy to work with back in the day due to relatively big egos. Can you clarify this for the readers of The Metal Crypt?
Brian: The biography on Battleaxe is extremely unrepresentative of the band and is only the opinion of a disgruntled ex-drummer. That site is no longer the official Battleaxe site, it is now www.battleaxeuk.com.
The original site was put up by the drummer who we originally thought was helping us only to find out he was a huge control freak who wanted his own way about everything. When he left he continued to leave that site up and running, complete with the misleading biography. We apologize to all the fans and everyone out there about this problem and ask only for you to use the official website and Facebook.
Luxi: You also started recording Battleaxe's third album, Mean Machine, back in 1987. Did it ever get finished and, if so, why wasn't it ever released? Was it a lack of label interest or did crises inside the band prevent its release?
Brian: This rumor has been around a long time and is not entirely accurate. In 1983 we did a Radio One session and "Mean Machine" was one of the tracks recorded. It was never used on an album although now appears as a bonus track on the SPV re-release of Power from the Universe. In 1990 we started recording a 24-track album that was never completed and consists of mainly drum, bass and guitar tracks and is a 10-track album in an unfinished state. No vocals were started. We simply ran out of funds. We still have the 2" masters from that time though but it is unlikely that anything can be salvaged from them.
Luxi: Both you and Brian Smith have been the pillars of Battleaxe as you have been in the band since it was formed in 1979. What makes Brian such an inseparable band mate, from your point of view?
Dave: Back in the early days of 1979 a local band was formed in County Durham UK called Warrior, which had nothing to do with the NWOBHM Warrior. Anyway, I was the driver and roadie for them at that time and it didn't really last long, so when they broke up in 1980 I asked if I could audition for vocalist job. They laughed but because I was a friend they gave me a chance and I got the job. We decided to change the name and in 1981 Battleaxe was formed. Brian is the founder member from those early days and it's because of Brian that Battleaxe has the exiting, energetic sound it has today. Not only is he a fantastic bass player and songwriter, he makes sure the band sticks to its roots, as it were, and maintains the integrity of the band. Brian and I have known each other and been friends for over thirty years. We have played many gigs and recorded many songs together and we've always maintained a good friendship along with a great sense of humor which plays a very big part in Battleaxe. Not only does it hold us together when things are tough, it makes being in the band so much more worthwhile and enjoyable. Sadly, when Paul was in the band, he took things far too seriously and, with his controlling manner, he slowly disintegrated the integrity and enjoyment of it all. Since Rick Squires joined us recently all that's come back and it's great again.
I think if Brian decided to call it a day with Battleaxe I can honestly say, hand on heart, that would be it for me too.
Luxi: Same question for you, Brian; what are some of Dave's best assets as a musician, friend and loyal band mate, from your point of view?
Brian: Dave always throws himself into the task of singer and lyricist and just happens to have exactly the right sort of voice for the band. We tried many singers previously but they never seemed to hit the mark.
As an example a couple of Battleaxe tracks were already written in 1978 when we were called Warrior. These were "Battleaxe" and "Starmaker." In the older version with the previous singer they never really gelled but with new lyrics and Dave singing, they were transformed.
Luxi: We already touched on this next topic but your ex-drummer Paul separated ways with Battleaxe last year and is doing his Axxed Asylum project now. Is there still some animosity between him and the rest of Battleaxe or do you just wish him well with all of his future endeavors?
Brian: He is the one with all of the animosity and we feel sorry for the members in his band, as they will suffer in exactly the same way we did. The guy has some sort of superiority complex and it is so sad. When Paul joined the band in the late eighties we had no idea how things would turn out. He only did a few gigs with us at that time and a few for a brief period of time in the nineties so we didn't really know him until we start recording the Sanctuary album. This is when all the problems started and we realized how controlling someone could be if allowed too much free reign. We will never allow that situation to happen again and it is now strict band policy to share everything. This means all have equal access to website design, video footage, photographs, and of course the multi-track recordings. Only in this way can we move forward. It is extremely frustrating for one person to be photographer, producer, video editor, web designer, etc. and not allow anyone else access. If we asked for the photos we got thumbnails, for rough mixes, we got a disk full of audio spoilers, so it was useless.
Luxi: What did the years with Paul teach you overall about band chemistry? The right band chemistry is not something that can be taken for granted...
Brian: Exactly! As mentioned above we will now be very careful how we proceed and not allow anyone to steal the band's legacy. After all, our path was already forged in the eighties and nothing anyone does now can change that.
Luxi: Undoubtedly you have started the hunt for a new Battleaxe drummer. Have you found any suitable candidates yet?
Brian: We have already found a new drummer; Ricky Squires from Scotland. He has already rehearsed with us and gigged at Bloodstock as well as festivals in Germany and Spain. Ricky has a lot of experience in the industry and that allowed us to carry on with a minimum of upheaval. He carries a much larger drum kit than our previous drummer and he will be recording our next album with us.
Luxi: How would you analyze Battleaxe's sort of "cult" status when it comes to the band's first two albums, Burn This Down and Power from the Universe? What do you believe made those albums such timeless classics especially so many years after they were released? People seem to appreciate them more now than they did 30 years ago as far as I can see...
Brian: It is amazing how the popularity of those albums has increased over the years. We are often surprised at the enthusiasm of the fans for our albums. Neither was well received by the UK press at the time although we got great reviews from the rest of the world.
History always seems to put everything in the right perspective, as we were too close to it at the time. It is clearer now that we were sort of early Speed Metal, especially with Burn this Town, and certain elements of the band's sound can now be heard in the Speed and Power Metal bands of today. We always specifically wrote songs that were catchy but heavy and our live shows are designed to suit headbangers of all ages.
Luxi: Which album do you prefer, Burn This Town or Power from the Universe, and why? How well have these albums stood the test of time in your opinion?
Brian: Burn This Town was basically our demo tapes from Guardian Studios in 1982. The production was basic and the drums in particular suffered as a result. Despite this, it was fast and exciting, which was what Roadrunner wanted and was released as our first album complete with the much-maligned cover.
The songs seem to be loved even more today and definitely have stood the test of time. Power from the Universe was an attempt at a more mature album with a new drummer and an all out effort for a much better production. We achieved this but maybe at the expense of some of the vitality and excitement of Burn this Town. There were many influences from other quarters at the time which were perhaps not really suited to the band's style and some of this may have crept into a couple of tracks on the Power album. However, in all other areas it was a progression from Burn This Town with a more mature sound. I think we like both albums equally well but for different reasons.
Luxi: Obviously you have also slowly but steadily been working on new songs for Battleaxe's next release. What are some of the latest updates regarding the current songwriting process of Battleaxe?
Brian: We have several songs partly written and some fully written for the next album. When we released Heavy Metal Sanctuary we knew we had to give the fans what they wanted and so did not stray too far from the original Battleaxe formula except for a more modern production. In fact a couple of Sanctuary's songs originate from the eighties although slightly re-written. A few reviewers mentioned that we had not progressed a great deal but this was deliberate and we feel on the next album there may be some more experimental or different material. Who knows, we haven't yet decided!
Luxi: How does your new stuff compare to Heavy Metal Sanctuary? Do you believe the new stuff will move you closer to the NWOBHM sound?
Brian: Some of the new material does sound a little like Sanctuary and there may even be the odd track from back in the day that will be given a slight reworking but we also may be venturing into some areas we might have gone had we not disbanded back then. A band cannot evolve when it is not together. Whatever direction the material takes it will still be Battleaxe. The NWOBHM box can be both a help and a hindrance.
Luxi: Generally speaking, Battleaxe has always been considered a NWOBHM band. What do those letters mean to you in 2015 when we talk about Battleaxe and the whole NWOBHM phenomena these days? Do you believe this new generation of Metalheads has forgotten what those magical letters stand for?
Brian: NWOBHM is the label usually given to us but you have to remember that NWOBHM is an era, not a genre. There was an extremely diverse amount of bands in the NWOBHM, from AOR type bands to Thrash and Black Metal. We always just thought of ourselves as a Metal band pure and simple though we are often labeled NWOBHM and sometimes as early Speed and Power Metal. Some of the newer generation fans are more clued up than you would imagine and talking to some of them they know as much about the band as we do.
Luxi: What kind of hopes do you have for this year as far as Battleaxe's coming and goings are concerned? Obviously getting offers to play at some well-chosen festivals can't be easily turned down, correct?
Brian: At the moment things may seem fairly quiet but we are soldiering on with the new material and there will possibly be a video as well. We are recording as much as we can ourselves as this is the most cost effective method these days and we will finish it in a studio, possibly Trinity Heights in Newcastle again. Of course we would love to tour as well, and are looking into options, but this can be expensive. We will be playing some festivals as well as this is often the only way we can play in some areas. We seem to have the most requests from Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, USA, South America and Japan.
Luxi: What Metal audiences would obviously love to witness and experience some day would be some sort of an old school tour that would consist of legendary English NWOBHM bands like Raven, Battleaxe, Satan, Avenger and Blitzkrieg. Have you ever had any discussions with other NWOBHM outfits about this possibility? I am sure such a special tour would draw a lot of audience...
Brian: We have occasionally talked about this with other bands from the NWOBHM but it will probably be a difficult thing to achieve given that it means a lot of band members would all have to be free at the same time. It is hard enough to accomplish that in just our own band sometimes. Remember, that this has already sort of happened at Brofest in Newcastle, which we played last year alongside several other well known NWOBHM bands, although that was a single event, not a tour.
Luxi: I think that's all I had at this time. Thanks so much for your time and I hope 2015 is full of success for Battleaxe. If you have any closing words, then feel free to spit them out...
Brian: Thank you for your interest in the band. We hope this answers your questions and gives you a clearer insight into where we are at. Also we thank our many fans and supporters out there for their loyalty and support. Thank you!
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