Monday, April 2, 2018

interview: Spartan Warrior

Recently we came upon the album Hell to Pay (2018) from Spartan Warrior (U.K.). The album is done well and the band sounds skilled, but imagine our surprise that the year 1980 is actually when they formed the band! Another surprise: They were active in the 80s and recorded two albums, Steel n' Chains (1983) and Spartan Warrior (1984). With all this information, we thought that it would be interesting to learn about how they began way back in the classic times and find out more about what happened back then and what’s happening now with the new album and the band in general. Thanks to singer David Wilkinson for answering the questions!
Greetings, friends! Good work for sure on the new album!
David: Thank you. We worked very hard to make it the best we could.
The band began in 1980?! Did you experience the New Wave of British Heavy Metal at that time?!
Yes. I think it must have been in 1979 that I joined a band called Deceiver. Deceiver played the local bar and club circuit doing cover versions and some original numbers. In 1980 my brother, Neil, replaced one of Deceiver’s guitarists and shortly after that one of Neil’s friends, John Stormont, replaced the other guitarist and Deceiver started to move in a different musical direction with those two guys on board. At that point we discussed a change of name and a number of suggestions were made.
As I recall, the potential band names were put into a beer glass and Spartan Warrior was the name drawn out. As Spartan Warrior we continued to play club and bar shows and over a period of time reduced the number of cover versions we were playing until our live set consisted of all originals except for a cover version of UFO’s ‘Lights Out’. In 1982/83 we heard that a local label, Guardian Records, were looking for bands to record songs for a compilation album. We recorded a rehearsal, went to meet Guardian’s owner/Producer and ended up recording two tracks ‘Steel n’ Chains’ and ‘Comes As No Surprise’ which were released as part of the ‘Pure Overkill’ compilation album in 1983.
Guardian asked us if we wanted to record an album with them and we subsequently recorded a further eight tracks, paying for our own studio time and recording two tracks per session. Those eight tracks plus the two that we had recorded for the ‘Pure Overkill’ compilation formed the debut album, ‘Steel n’ Chains’, which was also released by Guardian in 1983. At around the same time Roadrunner Records had expressed an interest in signing the band. In fact, we signed to Roadrunner around the time the first album was due to be released and we headed straight back into the studio to record the second self-titled album. Spartan Warrior II was released by Roadrunner in 1984.
Unfortunately, the band split in 1985. Although we were not really aware of it at the time, but because of the time frame of the bands existence, we were without doubt part of the NWOBHM movement.
Where in the UK were you living and doing shows in the 1980s?
All of the band lived in the North East of England and we still do.
How is the metal life for your band in general in the city where you live? I wonder if in your city you have a new generation taking up this style of music.
I think it’s fair to say that there is a thriving metal scene in the North East of England and throughout the UK. That said, the scene overall seems to be multi genre. There are a lot of NWOBHM bands from the area who are active. Bands like Avenger, Tysondog, Satan and Blitzkrieg. There are a few younger bands playing in what I guess you could call a ‘traditional’ heavy metal style who are citing their influences as bands from the NWOBHM era. To that extent there is certainly a new generation taking up that traditional style of playing.
Now after all these years you are here making new metal. Tell us about Hell to Pay. How did you get such a crisp sound? Who are the people that played on the album and who played what? Could you tell us about your methods for recording?
The band actually reformed in 2009 as a four piece for the purpose of recording. We released our third album, ‘Behind Closed Eyes’ in 2010 on the Iron Age label. We went through a lineup change in 2011 after our original bass player retired and our original drummer decided that he did not wish to continue. The band now consists of myself as vocalist, Neil Wilkinson and Dan Rochester on guitars, James Charlton on drums and Tim Morton on bass. That lineup has been together since 2012. That is the lineup that played on the new album ‘Hell To Pay’.
Both the ‘Behind Closed Eyes’ and ‘Hell To Pay’ albums were recorded at my brother Neil’s home studio and he engineered and produced both of those albums having invested his own time and money in those ventures. Neil is one of the principal songwriters in Spartan Warrior along with myself and Dan Rochester. He is a very accomplished guitarist and knows exactly what he wants Spartan Warrior to sound like. It makes perfect sense for him to take control of the production of our albums.
I think that even Neil would say that him doing that comes with a great deal of responsibility and pressure but by the same token that has allowed him and us to have sole responsibility for what eventually ends up on record. The main point is on taking control and responsibility and being happy with the record at the end of the process as opposed to relinquishing that control and ending up with something that falls short of what we were looking for.
We record in a very traditional way. Bass and drums go down first with maybe a pilot guitar and vocal as a guide. Rhythm guitars followed by lead breaks go down next and the vocals last. Neil always tries to record single takes and he is not a great believer in dropping in to edit mistakes. If it isn’t right after the first take it gets done again, and again until it is. That way we end up with a very authentic sounding record, tight performances and a recording which to all intents and purposes is delivered ‘live’.
The bass guitar is easy to hear! I’m sure that makes your bassist proud! The guitars are crisp, too. It’s nice to hear all the instruments!
Thank you. Well, that really is testament to Tim Morton’s style of playing and Neil’s great ear as a producer. The band rehearse every week in an environment that is designed to expose flaws. For example, in rehearsal everything is turned down, an electronic kit is used to facilitate that and there is no PA for the vocals. I just stand in the middle of the studio and sing the songs dry, no PA, no mic, nothing. Everything is exposed and it’s easy to hear mistakes and to put them right. you can lose a lot and hide a lot with volume. We don’t do that!
By the time we come to record we are just so well rehearsed that the tracks usually go down very easily. Tim Morton is a great bass player and James Charlton is an exceptional drummer. The two of them have been playing together for about 5 or 6 years now and as a unit they are really tight and punchy. As far as the production of the bass and guitars on ‘Hell To Pay’ is concerned, again Neil takes full credit for that as he has been able to capture some very brutal performances without losing any clarity.
Who are the members from the old days from the 1980s still in the band today?
The current lineup includes only Neil Wilkinson and myself from the original band.
It’s not easy making metal music in the 1980s and now in 2018, with financial limitations and all, right?
Financially it’s very tough these days because labels just will not advance money to enable bands to record. That was one of the reason’s that Neil invested in his home recording studio, to be financially self-sufficient in terms of recording and also to retain quality control of our product. In so far as the live circuit is concerned, it’s so competitive and promoters are by and large on such a tight budget that the financial viability of playing live is difficult, too. It’s really about doing it for the love of the music and the friendship! As long as each of us are enjoying what we do, then that is reason enough for continuing.
The song “In Memorium” is almost thrash! Was that song in honor of someone close to you?
I don’t see it as almost thrash myself. It has a driving bottom end but it’s actually quite mid tempo in terms of its pace. Certainly it’s a heavy number. It’s actually an anti-war song. I guess you could say it is for us what ‘War Pigs’ was to Black Sabbath. It’s really about the futility of war and the futility of terrorism. It just seems to me that whichever side of the fence any individual is on they always have some ‘principle’ of import to them at stake. Whether it’s territory or religion or something else. There’s always something that one side or the other feel is worth fighting for.
When I was at school I read a lot of the poetry from the War Poets of World War I, people like Wilfred Owen. The futility that was conveyed through those works was extremely graphic and hugely impactful. I just doubt the ‘principles’ of war if you know what I mean? Is anything really worth killing for or dying for? Truth is I don’t know but there’s a line in ‘In Memoriam’ which perhaps sums up the harsh reality… ‘fought for freedom, died alone’. That’s probably the real tragedy right there, isn’t it?
“Something to Believe” In is a nice change of pace. Is this your first ballad or have you recorded ballads before? In the 1980s it would have been your big MTV!
There was a ballad on the first album called “Don’t Wanna Be a Loser” which seems to have been very popular on You Tube. There was also a ballad on the ‘Behind Closed Eyes’ album called “Time”. We don’t really write to order. We never have done. But, I agree that it’s quite an 80s thing to have a ballad or a power ballad on an album. The fact is that on the new album “Something To Believe In” was treated the same way as every other song on the album. If we didn’t think it was good enough to be on there we wouldn’t have put it on. I guess it works well on the album in so much as it adds to the diverse nature of the songs that are on there and it adds a little light and shade to the record.
Of course, the title track is a barnstormer! Hey, the artwork looks gruesome, like the devils will take your soul after you die. This song wastes no time in getting to the headbanging. It’s a very cool opener! Is “Hell to Pay” your views on life after death? What do you think happens when you die? Are there consequences after life, in your opinion?
I personally don’t have any views on whether or not there is life after death and I have no idea what happens to us when we die. From a religious perspective there are those who say that there are consequences for our sins and that come our time we will be judged. Well, that’s quite a terrifying thought if you happen to be a sinner and that is exactly what ‘Hell To Pay’ is about lyrically. In the UK when someone says ‘There was hell to pay’ it means that there was trouble.
‘Hell To Pay’ tells the story of someone who is dying and who as he is drawing his last breath reflects upon his sins as his life flashes before him. He realises all too late that his soul will be the price for his sins as a number of demons arrive to claim him. That’s what you see on the cover and that’s what you hear in the lyrics. Do I believe that’s what happens to sinners when they die? I have no idea but it’s a frightening thought and makes for a great heavy metal song and album cover!
What are the views of your band regarding religion and God and Satan? Some of you are now older as compared to the 1980s, how have your views changed now that you have some more experience in your life (death in the family, death of friends, getting older in general, raising children, so on and so forth)?
I can only speak for myself. I don’t really do religion. I was brought up as a Christian and I would say that I remain of Christian ‘faith’. By that I mean that I still hold Christian values but I’m not really sure how far my actual faith and belief in God extends these days. I’d like to think that there is a forgiving God, that there is eternal life after death and that ultimately I’ll be able to spend eternity with my loved ones. Personally, I find myself doubting that more and more as I get older. I don’t know why.
The universe is a vast place and maybe somewhere there is a heaven and somewhere there is a hell. I just don’t know. As I’ve got older, and I’ll be 56 years old this year, I have become acutely aware of my own mortality and the fact that the chances are I’ve got fewer years remaining ahead of me than I have behind. That can be quite a sobering thought but one probably not worth dwelling upon as none of us can predict when our lives will be affected by illness, accident or when our lives will end. The only thing certain in life is death!
I have a question that you will hate. The main riff in the song “Bad Attitude” is a bit reminiscent of Dokken’s “Breaking the Chains”. Do you agree?
I don’t hate the question and I’m perfectly happy to answer it. I think that there is a very short but repeated guitar passage in ‘Bad Attitude’ that is reminiscent of Dokken’s ‘Breaking the Chains’. It may be similar but it is not the same. Other than that short similar passage the guitar parts are completely different! The verses and choruses bear no resemblance or similarity at all. The vocal melody and structure of the vocal phrasing bears no resemblance to ‘Breaking the Chains’ either. They are completely different songs. I can see why you might think that that part of ‘Bad Attitude’ is reminiscent of Dokken’s ‘Breaking the Chains’ but it’s certainly not deliberately lifted from it. Lots of bands have material that is ‘reminiscent’ of another band and we certainly didn’t debate this one sounding a bit like Dokken.
In your opinion, how is the singing now different in Spartan Warrior as compared to your older music from the 1980s? What changes do you notice? So, what about recording techniques? It easier to record now than back in the day? Is it less spontaneous now?
I guess that the only thing that has changed about my vocals is probably the fact that my range is slightly less than it was when I was younger. But even that isn’t hugely significant. I think overall I’m a better vocalist than I used to be. I think that I’m a more focused singer now. I’m much more aware of breathing techniques and I’m more conscious of how I pace my vocal delivery than I used to be. I’m much more into melody and hook than your typical ‘heavy metal vocalist’ and that probably goes back to my personal musical influences. Phil Mogg from UFO is a great lyricist and a superb vocalist. His ear for melody and his vocal delivery itself is superb. I try to deliver my vocals in a similar sort of way. It doesn’t have to be off the scale to be effective.
I’ve never found recording to be spontaneous nor anything other than plain hard work. Spartan Warrior tracks are fully written and extremely well rehearsed before we even get to the studio so there is very little room for anything spontaneous. I might accidentally alter my pitch or key to something which ends up as a ‘keeper’ or I may ad lib a little backing vocal here or there but nothing major. It’s certainly not any easier to record these days. In fact, it’s probably tougher than ever and that I think goes back to having Neil producing the last two albums. He is the figure head of Spartan Warrior and he knows what his end game is. He knows what he wants from each of us and at times in order to achieve that he’s driven me to the point of breaking! But he’s not often wrong about things and he never takes the easy option just for the sake of it.
Back in the day, did you record almost the whole song in one or two takes? Do you record your songs bit by bit now? For example, do you copy/paste the rhythm guitars for a riff that repeats? Are the choruses simply copied and pasted on all the songs or are they sung every time?
We have always recorded our songs in exactly the same way. Bass and drums go down as a live take using a pilot guitar and vocal if required. The rhythm guitars go down next followed by the lead work and then the vocals. Neil is a firm believer in keeping only live takes so usually what you hear on the records are live one take performances right across the board. It may have meant multiple takes which end up deleted before we get the keeper. But the keepers are one take start to finish. The only exception to that is that I might drop in the odd word or line to a vocal upon which I’ve made a mistake or missed a cue but that’s pretty rare even if again it’s taken multi takes before I get it right.
We have never cut and pasted anything that Neil has produced. Everything is played live in its entirety start to finish: guitars, vocals the whole lot. In fact, the only time that has ever happened was on the second album which was arranged, mixed and mastered without our being present and the band weren’t aware of what had been done until the album was released and we each heard it. We really didn’t like that at all!
Now that you have a new album ready in 2018, what is next on the live front for Spartan Warrior? Will you be taking your music to Europe?
Hopefully. We will just have to see what opportunities are presented to us as the year progresses. It’s early days yet as we’ve been so focused on getting the album released that everything else has been put on the back burner. Now that the albums been released and is receiving very positive feedback we can turn our focus to getting out and doing some live shows just as soon as those opportunities arise.
Any chance of coming to the United States?! I am in Seattle, I suppose you're not coming here any time soon!
Neil and I have friends in Seattle and they own a place called The Whiskey Bar. Maybe you know it? Neil is a frequent visitor to Seattle and I know on his last visit he was introduced to Parker Lundgren from Queensryche. Certainly, we would like to play in the States. Our label, Pure Steel I think do have bases in both Germany and the USA so maybe that is something they could look at with us?
I know that there is quite a thriving metal scene over there and I know that there is interest in bands from the NWOBHM movement growing stateside. Our good friends from Raven are of course American citizens these days and have been for many years. We’ll have to see, but certainly some stateside shows would be great!
Thanks for your time!!
My pleasure.
Thank you to our friends and fans everywhere for their continued support. We hope you all like the new album ‘Hell To Pay’ and we look forward to playing live for you as soon as we can!
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Thank you for your support!

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