Interview with guitarist and vocalist Tom G. Warrior
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: May 13, 2022
Switzerland's Hellhammer was one of the most extreme metal bands to emerge from the underground metal scene in the early eighties. They were there at the early stages of extreme metal music with bands like Venom and Bathory that all had a filthy and punk-ish underground metal style. That type of music was far from being popular back in those days and not many fans understood or appreciated what they were doing. This Swiss trio released a couple of demos and the now-legendary mini-LP Apocalyptic Raids in 1984 before the band broke up and rose from the ashes under the name Celtic Frost with Martin Ain and Tom G. Warrior.
It was quite a surprise for fans of Hellhammer when the news broke in November 2018 that Tom wanted to bring a group named Triumph of Death on the road to perform Hellhammer's music. Since then, apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, Triumph of Death has been seen at many well-known metal festivals such as Hellfest, France and Wacken, Germany in 2019, among others.
Due to Covid, Triumph of Death had to postpone some shows from 2020 and finally the Hell-sinki gig at the famous Tavastia Club took place on April 13, 2022, which was witnessed by yours truly. The show was packed regardless of the fact it happened in the middle of the week, which tells you something about the interest and curiosity fans from many generations have about this cult Swiss metal act.
The Metal Crypt had the pleasure to talk with Tom G. Warrior and we covered some of Hellhammer's history and the reasons around the formation of Triumph of Death plus topics that may well be relevant regarding some of the band's future plans.
Without further ado, let me fire away with the first question regarding Triumph of Death, the cover band that plays Hellhammer songs. How were your last two shows in this series of European gigs, in Finland and Norway?
Tom: Well, you can imagine that given my history, playing in the north of Europe has this very special significance. I think there exists a very mythical connection between my early days and some of the music that has been played in the north of Europe in the past 30 years, and that makes it something very special. I was very, very fortunate for example with Celtic Frost and Triptykon to play very, very good concerts for very special audiences whenever I was in Finland. It was fantastic to be able to combine a concert in Finland and a concert in Norway with Triumph of Death and I really didn't know what to expect because I had never played such old music there but, I'm very happy to report the concert in Finland was probably one of the best Triumph of Death has experienced so far. The audience was phenomenal and we came off the stage very, very happy, and we had the feeling the audience felt the same. The concert in Norway was also very good, not quite as good as Finland but it also must rank among the best we have experienced so far. I have no complaints. It was a real privilege to do this trip.
Yes, it was great to see you performing at Tavastia Club in Helsinki, just because this was, of course, my very first time seeing you guys doing Hellhammer stuff, plus that one Celtic Frost song...
Tom: Actually "Visions of Mortality" is a Hellhammer song, but Celtic Frost basically made a cover version of it.
Ah, I see. I didn't know that. Thanks for clarifying, I wasn't aware of this before...
Tom: It was the last song Martin Erich Ain and I wrote in Hellhammer. It was the month we dissolved Hellhammer and it was actually that song that convinced us that we had reached a new level and we needed to form a different band that was maybe as heavy but a little more sophisticated in the approach. That song was "Visions of Mortality" and that's why it was significant to play it. The song signifies the end of Hellhammer and, because we hadn't recorded it with Hellhammer, it also signifies Celtic Frost because it was recorded for the first Celtic Frost album.
I was amazed by the fact that the show was in the middle of the week, on Wednesday, April 13, and the venue was truly packed, perhaps nearly sold out even. I guess this must tell you something about the long-lasting magic of the true underground legendary act called Hellhammer, or in this case Triumph of Death. I saw people of all ages in the crowd; older people who have probably been following your bands since the very beginning and a new generation of metalheads who weren't even born when Hellhammer put out the Apocalyptic Raids back in 1984.
There is truly something magical in this whole Hellhammer thing, right?
Tom: That is both a big surprise and huge privilege for me at the very same time. When I formed Triumph of Death, I didn't know if it would only attract people from that time who wanted to relive one more time the magic of the early '80s, or if it actually had the potential to interest young people. At every single concert we have played with Triumph of Death so far, the audience has been completely mixed.
It's fantastic. It's amazing to see the younger generation of metal fans embracing this primitive proto-black metal. That was basically inspired directly by punk, and they understand it. They're not just there for history. They actually understand it and you see them headbang and they connect with us, they communicate with us. It's fantastic.
About what you said earlier, I didn't know what to expect either because the original concert before Covid was supposed to be a double concert with Shape of Despair, who I think is one of the most amazing bands in existence, and Triumph of Death. I thought, "Well, with these two bands, I'm sure we're going to fill Tavastia Club in Helsinki." But then because of twice rescheduling due to Covid, I noticed a few weeks ago that Shape of Despair was no longer listed, and I was very disappointed because I had been looking forward to watching their concert. Then I noticed the concert was happening in the middle of the week and I wondered, "are people even going to come on a Wednesday to see primitive proto-black metal?" and I was so happy when we stepped on stage, and we saw how filled it was. It was absolutely amazing!
Indeed. And it always makes things a bit sweeter when you notice that new generations of metal fans can find your music, no matter if they were born or not when some album was released a long time ago...
Tom: Most of my bandmates in Triumph of Death weren't born when Apocalyptic Raids came out and it's the same for Triptykon. The only person who wasn't an infant when Apocalyptic Raids came out is V. Santura, the guitar player of Triptykon. Of course, that's very surreal for me. It's a very surreal feeling but what are you going to do? When I started in the early '80s, when I started 41 years ago learning to play an instrument, I never thought I would have a career, much less one that has lasted over four decades. Here I am and it becomes very surreal, and of course, I'm extremely grateful that people are still giving me this platform and coming to my concerts.
THE FIRST SEEDS OF TRIUMPH OF DEATH
Yes, for sure. When did you originally get the idea of playing old Hellhammer stuff? Was your main reason for forming this band because you knew that only a small number of people ever witnessed a full Hellhammer live set live as the band was so short-lived, just a couple of years?
Tom: Well, the seeds for this project came about when Martin Erich Ain and I reformed Celtic Frost in the early 2000s. As everybody knows, we worked for over five years on the Monotheist album and, during that time we had plenty of time to talk about our past, talk about our path together, about the records we did together, and so on. Hellhammer was a constant topic. We talked about the bad sides of Hellhammer, we talked about the good sides of Hellhammer. We both came to the conclusion that in spite of all of the up and downs, Hellhammer was hugely important for us. The older we became, the more we felt this as musicians.
For example, when I brought songs to rehearsals for Monotheist, Martin often said, "this riff sounds like Hellhammer." I realized that he was actually right about that. Out of this grew the book project, where Martin and I collaborated on the Only Death Is Real book about the existence of Hellhammer. By that time, I had really started feeling sorry that Hellhammer's music had never been played on stage. You're right, in the Hellhammer days, we tried to get some concerts organized but the people in Switzerland, the local concert promoters and club owners, they wouldn't have us. There was no extreme metal back then, especially not in Switzerland, and nobody was going to let us do a concert. The only concerts we did were some private gigs in our rehearsal room, attended by 10 or 20 fans at the time, friends of ours. Now Hellhammer is a known entity in the metal scene and I thought maybe I should try to bring this on stage before I die.
And that has obviously been a very cool idea because as you've surely noticed, your concerts have been packed wherever you have brought this band to play, as happened at Tavastia Club in Helsinki, Finland, last week.
Tom: Since you were there, you could see that we also had a very good time. Even though the music is dark and heavy, and the lyrics are sometimes quite radical it's a very loose mood on stage and there's really a very uniting connection between the audience and us because there's really no pressure. We're playing music that exists, we don't have to promote an album. There are no record company expectations behind it. We simply go on stage to have fun like it's supposed to be. We're playing very raw, punk-like music. It's really the essence of extreme music, and I think that's why it works for everybody involved.
Yes, that's very true. Did you have any criteria for choosing your bandmates to carry the torch for Hellhammer in Triumph of Death's incarnation? Obviously, they all had to understand what Hellhammer was all about...
Tom: Yes, of course. Hellhammer was a very special group of people back then. It was a very special time not only in Switzerland. In Switzerland, it was a time of unrest where the youth of the time stood up against the establishment. Nothing was being done for the youth. At the same time, institutions such as the opera got tens of millions of Swiss francs in state support, and eventually the young people of Switzerland were just frustrated and went to the streets. The establishment sent out the police, the police shot at the young people. There was very violent unrest in the streets.
At the same time, there was a revolution in heavy metal with the new wave of British heavy metal. All these things were happening when Hellhammer existed. In addition to that, in our private lives, almost everybody in Hellhammer or affiliated with Hellhammer were very difficult youths at home. I knew it was difficult to recreate the spirit of that band, it's almost impossible, so I tried to choose people who I have the feeling understand the music and understand the context. You cannot recreate that time, of course. The people who are on stage with me are really people that I think, as much as they can, understand what Hellhammer was all about. I would say probably Andre our guitar player, mostly. He's been a friend of mine for many years. He's probably the most extreme musician I know here in Switzerland and I'm very proud to have him with me. He's perfect for this project.
Basically, you needed similar mindsets to yours so that they could be on the same page to really understand what this music is all about?
Tom: Yes. I'm not a dictator or anything but, of course, I wanted to have people next to me who play this music honestly, not for getting the exposure. I wanted people who actually lift this music when they play it.
FLASHES FROM THE PAST TIMES
What was it like for you to return back to this old Hellhammer material after so many years? When you started rehearsing, did it bring back memories, both good and bad perhaps?
Tom: Massively. It was so emotional that at times it was very difficult during the first rehearsals with Triumph of Death. I was sometimes flooded with images. Certain songs, certain moments, played like a little film in my mind some of the things that I lived through with Steve Warrior with whom I formed the band, or with Martin Erich Ain, and it wasn't always easy, because I missed those times. They were very difficult times and not everything Hellhammer did was good. Some of it you could even say is dangerous. We were young people and it was an extremely important and formative time, and that's why this time is etched into my brain. It wasn't always easy to have these memories, knowing that I can never relive those times, and that Steve Warrior, for example, because of his lifestyle, will never be able to play bass with me again, and that Marin Erich Ain because he died, can also not play with me again.
While I'm here playing this, they should be playing at my side. That happened during the first maybe 10 concerts of Triumph of Death. I had flashes like this. By now I've become a little more used to it. It's much more enjoyable, but there were a lot of emotions involved. We have occasionally played Hellhammer music in Celtic Frost, but I've never played a full set of Hellhammer music since Hellhammer's existence. That was a new experience after some 35 years or so.
IN THE YEAR 1982...
When Hellhammer started in 1982, I believe metal fans really weren't ready for music this extreme, you know, the year when bands like Iron Maiden released their third album, The Number of the Beast, and Priest put out the Screaming for Vengeance album. Do you blame Venom for why you decided to take this more rocky and tough road with the band, knowing that the type of stuff that you were churning out was far from being popular or accepted by the mainstream?
Tom: Well, of course, the most direct inspiration came from Discharge, from Venom, and from Motörhead. We were also fanatics for Black Sabbath of course, and for Angel Witch. I think those are probably the five most direct bands behind what caused Hellhammer, yes.
It's no wonder Hellhammer has always been considered one of the true pioneers of extreme metal along with bands like Venom and Bathory. How do you see Hellhammer's influence on the black metal genre and how has the band left its mark on the extreme metal underground?
Tom: I cannot possibly answer that. How am I going to comment on how influential or non-influential my music is? This will be totally preposterous. I am very grateful that people come to me and say my music was important to them. Really, that's the extent of what I can judge. I'm very grateful, I'm very happy that people come to our concerts, and they listen to our music. I know our music, the music we play with Triumph of Death, is totally anachronistic. If you listen to modern extreme metal, it's very, very sophisticated. It's very, very technical, very expertly produced.
Most of the musicians are excellent technicians. Here we are basically playing punk music mixed with satanic topics. It's completely anachronistic, and yet people are coming to the shows. I'm grateful for that. Beyond that, I cannot say or you have to answer that question. I can't possibly rate my own music. It's like asking me to review my own album.
Well, the fact is I am 50-something myself and have been actively following the heavy rock/metal scene for a very long time, how it has been evolving, changing, different genres emerging, etc. It's great to see these youngsters wearing Hellhammer shirts, patches, etc. at the concerts. That alone speaks to the heritage you have left for many of your fans. It's hardly something we could argue about, right?
Tom: Well, true I see that, too. But it's definitely not something I take for granted. It means a lot to me. You have to realize, it really cannot get any more underground than Hellhammer was. Everything was self-made. We had no connections. We had no money. We had no support from relatives or our families, quite on the contrary. We were in a bunker that was leaking water and there was mildew on the walls. It stank from mildew. That's how we practiced. It was the real deal. It was really underground. None of us thought that our music would ever be accepted because it wasn't at the time. You telling me all these things, it's, of course, a huge honor that people have eventually accepted it and that they're still listening to it, that they're wearing the T-shirts. To me, at the same time, it's almost unbelievable, because I was in Hellhammer.
At the time, it was exactly the opposite. We enjoyed it simply for the value of the music, what the music gave to us. Hellhammer's music wasn't written to be in a big stadium. Hellhammer's music was basically what was inside of us. The difficulties of our existence at the time, the difficulties of the Cold War World and youthful unrest, and so on that was screaming out of us. It was a very personal thing.
FROM HAMMERHEAD TO HELLHAMMER
How did you come up with the name Hellhammer?
Tom: Steve Warrior and I, and Steve is still a very good friend of mine in spite of the fact that he no longer can play and everything, and we actually do meet from time to time, we have discussed it many times. It sounds a little cliché but we both remember that we were hiking in the forest at night. We had formed this new band which we first had called Hammerhead but there was a NWOBHM-style band from England that was called Hammerhead and we felt we have to rename our band.
We discussed the name and we neither of us can remember who came up with the name Hellhammer. I think it might have been Steve Warrior but we're both no longer sure. It was definitely the two of us being in the forest walking in the dark forest and talking about the band name for like an hour about how to change it to make it more original. As we came out of the forest, we had the new band name. Hellhammer really felt right to us at the time. Hammerhead was not extreme enough, but Hellhammer? That's the music we want to play like a hammer from hell.
The name Hellhammer has a much stronger and darker ring to it than Hammerhead...
Tom: Absolutely! I have a soft spot for Hammerhead. I even have the Hammerhead single here from those The New Wave of British times, but of course, I think Hellhammer is much stronger.
THE DEMO ERA
Hellhammer's 1983 demo was called Death Fiend. Is it true, as it's been stated on the Metal-archives website, that it was limited to 20 copies, most of which went to your closest friends and roadies with the words "Von Tom, nicht kopieren (translates as "From Tom, don't copy") on them?
Tom: We actually planned to release a demo called Death Fiend and then a demo called Triumph of Death. The Death Fiend demo was to have the earlier material of Hellhammer and the Triumph of Death demo was to have a slightly later material. When we had recorded the songs, we felt the older material really didn't sound so strong. We decided not to release the Death Fiend demo, but a friend of ours had already secretly printed the Death Fiend sleeves at his workplace.
There actually wasn't an official edition of the demo. For some of the friends who had helped us along the way and for the members of the band, we made some cassettes. We hand-copied some cassettes and we handed them over for our closest friends, but it never was released officially. We decided to skip it and go directly to the Triumph of Death demo. Of course, by now, there's 10 million copies of the Death Fiend demo around.
That's true. It's apparently been bootlegged several times in different formats.
Tom: Eventually, we said there's so many bootlegs around, we might as well release it officially. In 1983, we thought, "No, it's not good enough" even though it's very difficult to hear much difference between the Death Fiend and the Triumph of Death demos. They basically sound the same.
Have you ever thought of recording with Triumph of Death, making a bunch of new songs that would follow the same dirty, rough, and punk-ish vibe and feeling of Hellhammer? I bet it would surely find potential fans because it seems this nostalgia thing always stirs up people's interest toward something that they want to experience again.
Tom: There are two approaches to releasing something with Triumph of Death. I have some live recordings from 2019 and they sound very good, but, as we all know, the Triumph of Death lineup is now different. We decided not to use those and do some live recordings during future concerts. There will definitely be some live release from Triumph of Death at some point. Of course, the second idea is to see if we can write some music that is in the Hellhammer vein without saying, "Look, it's Hellhammer." We're not going to pretend.
We'd rather be honest to say this Triumph of Death and we'd be trying to get some material done to see if it works or not. If yes, we'll do an album. At this point, I'm not sure if that's going to happen. We first have to see if it's going to be authentic, if it's going to be honest, if it sounds right.
But there's definitely going to be a live recording. There's no question about that.
FUTURE LIVE TRIUMPHS (OF DEATH)
Are you looking forward to performing at the U.K.'s Deathfest this September or do you prefer playing your own headlining shows at intimate clubs?
Tom: I have no problem with either. I think Hellhammer's music works very well in a small club. We have played some very small club shows. Of course, I'm also looking forward immensely to playing that festival in the UK, because the UK was instrumental on my path. It was really the journalist in the UK who gave Celtic Frost a breakthrough just a couple years or so after Hellhammer. I have very sentimental, nostalgic feelings about that, and I always love to play there.
I hear you. How did Twisted Talent Entertainment and Nine Lives concert agencies pick you up on their rosters?
Tom: Well, Twisted Talent and their affiliated company Nine Lives have been the concert agent for Celtic Frost for a very, very long time. Of course, when I left Celtic Frost and I formed Triptykon, I went there with Triptykon. They represent Triptykon because we've been working together for such a long time.
Everyone has become friends in private as well. One of the heads of Twisted Talent has been a friend of mine since the mid-1980s. He actually tried out to be the drummer for Celtic Frost in 1984. We have a near lifelong friendship, and I really know I can trust him, which to me is the most important thing in this industry.
Of course, when I did the Triumph of Death project, I knew I wasn't going to go to another concert agency. I really wanted to work with them because I know how they work. I know they're honest. I know they're very professional. There was no question in my mind.
Do you want to bring this act to as many places as possible, as long as it makes sense financially because it certainly isn't cheap traveling around the world with the band and crew...
Tom: Yes, of course. It costs something, but I'm not doing this project for money. I know there probably are people who don't believe it, but I'm not doing this project for financial gain. Triumph of Death is really to me a lot of fun because like I said earlier, we don't have to fight for credibility or promote an album or fulfill the expectations of people in the music business.
We can actually go on stage and just play music and that's phenomenal. It's all about power and wildness and extreme metal. There's really no plan to Triumph of Death. I think we will do that for as long as it's fun or as long as we and the audiences feel it's fun. I'm sure one day it's going to run its course, but right now we've only played 14 or 15 concerts. I think there's still a lot of people who want to see this and we still want to play it. We still feel it's fresh. We'll see. Of course, it costs money to tour with the crew, but it's a smaller operation than most of the things I do with Triptykon.
Triptykon is a bit more sophisticated. Triumph of Death is still slightly easier, still slightly more punk-ish when we tour than my main office job.
As you already mentioned you have plans for a live release with Triumph of Death, but, is there possibly going to be a DVD because, as you know, there are plenty of people around the world that would like to see like a Triumph of Death live, but may never get the chance because of distance. You may have fans in some really distant places like South Africa or South Korea. It's highly unlikely these fans may ever see Triumph of Death play except on DVD. I believe a live DVD would be a great idea...
Tom: That's absolutely true. We see it the same way and in addition to having done some audio recordings in the past, we've also filmed several concerts and we will also film some of forthcoming concerts and we definitely think we should do a DVD if we have material that's good enough. Yes, definitely!
Besides this, I too would like to have this at home because it's a very special project for me. I would like to have this memory on my bookshelves, too, of course. Absolutely!
Well, I think I got everything covered for my part, so thanks a lot for having this chat with me, and all the best with your future endeavors with both Triumph of Death and Triptykon.
Tom: Thank you very, very much. Thank you for giving me the time and thanks for coming to the concert.
To be honest, it was my pleasure to see you guys for the first time live, witnessing Triumph of Death. It was like a missing link for me personally as I have seen both Celtic Frost and Triptykon live, but never Triumph of Death.
So yeah, thanks again, Tom, for coming over to Finland, with the set of old Hellhammer songs.
Tom: Like I said, without any lie, it was one of the most enjoyable concerts we've played so far with Triumph of Death. You got an awesome and very supportive audience in Finland, so thanks to all of you who came to see us!
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