The Netherlands has always quite a reputation when it comes down to delivering quality (oldschool) death metal. One of the leading bands in that specific field is Hail Of Bullets, which consists of (former) members from Thanatos, Gorefest, Houwitser and Asphyx. The gents just released their third album, entitled “III: The Rommel Chronicles.” Enough reason to catch up with guitarist and bandleader Stephan Gebedi to discuss the fine art of making quality death metal, the band’s interest in WW II and the future of printed media.
The new Hail Of Bullets album is centered around the trials and tribulations of field marshal Erwin Rommel, one of the most renowned German commanders in WW2. Do you have any special connection with him?
None whatsoever (laughs). The whole concept behind the new album and the lyrics are all Martin’s (van Drunen – vocalist) ideas. Of course he kept the rest of the band in the loop of what he was writing about, but that’s it. That’s kind of how we roll within Hail Of Bullets. Martin writes all the lyrics, Ed (Warby – drummer) and I write most of the music. When the musical framework of a new HOB album is done we’ll let Martin know how many songs we want to include on said record and that’s when he starts working on the lyrics. Like I said before, that’s pretty much his department. He does a lot research, like reading lots of books and watching coutless war movies and documentaries. Sometimes we need to fold the music around the lyrics and sometimes it’s the other way around. Since Rommel is a controversial figurehead we really had to do our homework on the subject.
WW2 remains a touchy subject, especially in Germany. Fellow Dutch death metal band The Monolith Deathcult managed to stir up some bad blood in Germany, because of their lyrics…
That’s true. Michiel Dekker (TDMC guitarist and mastermind) recently told me that his band doesn’t play much gigs in Germany because of their lyrics. Our album landed on the 37 spot on the German album charts, so apparently we’re a little more subtle in our approach (laughs). As far the lyrics go we don’t take any sides and we’re not a political entity. We’re not using WWII themes for the sake of being controversial either. Martin goes to great lengths to really get the historic facts and context right. He’s really researches things with a great sense for integrity. If he would found out that Rommel would be a grade A nazi he would have dropped the subject immediately. Of course Rommel fought on the wrong side during WW2, but he’s also counted among the great commanders of his day. He was highly respected among his peers and his enemies.
Let’s move on to the music. III: The Rommel Chronicles has its fair share of well-rounded songs. How important is it for you guys to write actual songs, instead of relying on flashy musicianship like many of your peers?
That’s very important to us. When we started with Hail Of Bullets it was clear from the get go that we wanted to play the kind of death metal were we all grew up with. Basically bands from the late eighties and early nineties, like Autopsy, early Death, Bolt Thrower, Massacre, and Obituary. There was a time when I actually enjoyed the more technical side of death metal. Putting 25 guitar riffs in a song and playing 300 beats per minute is all nice and dandy, but it became old for me very quickly. With Hail Of Bullets we really aim to write memorable songs with a certain timeless quality. We’re influenced by oldschool death metal, but we want to combine that with a more comtemporary sound and production values. Our drummer Ed is quite capable when it comes to technically challenging pieces, but he really prefers to serve said song with his skills.
The amazing bit is that Ed Warby contributes the vast majority of the music within Hail Of Bullets. How much do you contribute in that aspect?
That’s true, Ed writes most of the music, however I did contribute a couple of songs as well for the new record. The other members came up with a couple of riffs as well. However, it’s mainly Ed when it comes to actually arranging all the songs. Shaping the whole album is pretty much a group effort. Ed and I both live in the Rotterdam area, so we also do a lot of song arranging together. Each band member has a say in things, so when Ed comes up with an idea which the rest doesn’t approve off, the whole thing gets ditched all together, but the same things happens with my ideas as well. In that regards we don’t suffer from ego problems luckily (laughs). It’s all about picking the strongest material for a new album. Sometimes one member contributes more than the others. It’s the way things go within Hail Of Bullets. Behind the scenes I take care of the business side of things, Ed is mostly active with the music and Martin takes care of the lyrics. The other two members do play their part within the band, but it’s mostly us three that form the cornerstone behind Hail Of Bullets.
Dan Swano (Edge Of Sanity, Nightingale) took care of the mixing and mastering duties of the new album. It’s the third time you guys chose to work with him. What’s the reason behind this?
Dan really knows which kind of sound we’re after and he really understand our kind of music. He’s only there to provide us with the right kind of sound. The production process behind the album is something we handle mostly ourselves. He’s the right guy for the massive wall of sound we’re after plus he’s a great guy to work with. We actually met the guy in the flesh for the first time during the recording of our new album. It may sound strange, but at first is was basically sending him the files and after some time we would get the finished product from him by email. This time around Dan came over from Sweden and he helped us with the recording of the drums. He gave us some directions and like I said he’s an easygoing guy to work with. When we don’t like a certain mix he’s done he gets back to work and slugs it long enough until we’re pleased with the result. During the the first record things took a little longer, but nowadays the whole process goes really fast. That’s the benefit of working together for a longer period of time.
All members of Hail Of Bullets are veteran musicians who’ve been in the wars so to speak. How does the band benefit from your collective experience?
The major advantage is that you don’t have the reinvent the wheel anymore. We’ve all had past experiences in our own bands when things didn’t go well, because of bad management, lineup changes and the likes. Because of our past experiences we manage to avoid such issues within Hail Of Bullets. Within HOB there’s room for discussion and alternate views and we respect each other’s opinions and treat each other like adults. In the early days HOB was more like a project above anything else and lots of people expected us to make one record and after that whole thing would implode because of eternal strive and ego clashes. At this point we’ve been around for seven years and we’ve produced three full length studio albums. Obviously we’re doing something right (laughs). It also helps that we really pick the gigs we really want to do and that we don’t do any long gruelling tours anymore. That keeps things fresh and exciting for us. It’s almost like being on a school trip in a way (laughs).
Besides Hail Of Bullets you also have your own band, Thanatos. How do you combine your life as a musician with having a steady job and a family to provide for?
I do have a steady job and a family to provide for. I also write for the Aarschok, which is the premier Dutch paper metal magazine. I also handle the business side of Hail Of Bullets, so things can become quite hectic at times (laughs). Because I spend so much time on the musical side of things, there’s some tension between me and my wife at times. My employer raises his eye brow at times when I request another day off (laughs). So a typical weekend entails playing a gig in one country on Saturday, playing another gig in a different country on Sunday, getting back home late in the evening and being at the office early Monday morning. Martin is the only HOB member who tries to make a living as a full time musician. All the other band members have regular jobs in order to get all the bills paid. We’re not getting any younger, but we manage to make it work somehow (laughs).
So how are things with Thanatos by the way?
There are a lot of things happening within the Thanatos camp. We signed a new record deal with Century Media not too long ago. A lot of our older albums are going to be re-released by them and we should have a new record out by next year. I’ve written a lot of songs and Paul (Baayens – guitarist) has a couple of tracks ready. Next week we’ll have a meeting and see what we have got. Now that we’re finally signed on a good label we really want to put out the best Thanatos record we can.
You did have your fair share of label related issues to say the least..
That’s very true. We were signed to a Greek metal label, but they went bankrupt soon thereafter. Our previous album was released via a very small Dutch company back in 2009, but with so little fanfare that pretty much no one noticed the album at all. Which is quite a shame, because I feel it was one of our better releases quality-wise. A typical case of bad luck (laughs).
But then again you put a lot of energy in order to get Thanatos off the ground. Does it bother you that you never managed to achieve the same level of success and acclaim than with your first band than you’re currently enjoying with Hail Of Bullets?
Not really to be honest. Both bands are equally dear to me for different reasons. With Thanatos we really had some bad luck and we’ve made some very poor decisions as well, especially business-wise. Our second album was really good and there was a tour scheduled with Cannibal Corpse, but that got cancelled at the very last minute. Same thing happened with Exhorder at the time. It was all beyond our own control. We did play some good headliner shows, but some members started to develope rock star attitudes. This, together with the booze and drugs at the time, things started to unravel fast. At a certain point I got totally fed up with the whole party atmosphere and I decided to pull the plug. After some years I decided to reform the band, but we put a really bad record in the form of “Angelic Encounters”. Especially sound-wise it was a complete trainwreck. The albums we released after “Angelic Encounters” hardly received any serious promotion from the labels they were released on. With this in mind I’m happy we’re currently on the Century Media roster and I really hope our older records get the recognition they deserve. Thanatos is having its 30th anniversary next year, so it would be grand if things go well for a change (laughs).
Finally, you’re also active as a writer for Aardschok, which the is premier metal paper mag in the Netherlands. With the decline of traditional (paper) magazine in mind, do you think there’s still a future for the Aardschok and the likes in this digital day and age?
Well, I’m not that active as a writer. I only contribute the occasional interview and a couple of reviews per month. You’re raising a good point there though, because it’s something we ask ourselves as well. I’m not so much involved with the business side of the Aardschok. From what I’ve heard the amount of units sold is fairly constant, so there’s still a market for this type of format. Morever, I think a lot of people still prefer to read a paper magazine than to read information of a tablet or a smartsphone. I’m an old hag, so I can imagine that younger prefer to read longer interviews from a tablet (laughs). In the long run I think that paper metal magazines will make it, but more in a niche market format and with diminished value and popularity.