Armageddon's Just a Matter of Time
CoC chats with Gavin Ward of Bolt Thrower
by: Jackie Smit
There's a war machine rolling into a town near you, and it's called Bolt Thrower. Veterans of extreme music who -- legend has it -- formed almost twenty years ago at a punk gig in Coventry, these denizens of all things death metal have weathered the storms and come out smiling. From record deals gone awry, to band members leaving, they've seen it all; and rather than wither away like so many of their peers, they stuck it out -- ultimately dropping one of 2005's deadliest bombs in the shape of their latest _Those Once Loyal_ effort. Gavin Ward, guitarist and founding member of what at present must be one of the UK’s most revered metal institutions, was on hand to discuss line-up changes, the music business and a whole lot more beside.

CoC: Other than his history with the band, what prompted you to give Karl [Willets] a call when Dave Ingram left the band?

Gavin Ward: It was something we were always going to do. It was one of those things. The band got bigger with Karl after he had left -- do you know what I mean? But yeah, it was the obvious thing to do. When Martin [van Drunen] left originally and we had Karl come in and do _Mercenary_ we had a real good time with him, but at that point he was still in university doing his degree and he couldn't commit 100%. So when we asked him this time, we asked him to come on board as a full member, not only to join just to do the album. He said yes straight away, and it was as though he'd never been away. It was easier than fucking easy, and that was what we were looking for -- something really natural. Before, when we had Dave, he was living in Denmark. Martin was living in Holland. That made us be a bit disjointed for a while, and now it's a more solid line-up, where we can hang out and see each other outside of the band as well.

CoC: If Karl had turned you down at that point, would we have seen another Bolt Thrower record?

GW: Of course! Nothing stops us. <laughs> Our fans could; if they didn't want to come to the gigs anymore, then I'm sure that would stop us. But so far as firing albums out -- no worries. Karl was our second vocalist. We had Allen [West] before that, who did _In Battle There Is No Law_, then it was Karl, then Martin, then Karl again, then Dave, and now it's back to what it was. That all showed me that this band is one of those things that's bigger than the sum of its parts. That said, I don't know what we'd have done. It would have been a tight call. The band refused me my offer. <laughs> I was thinking that I could sell all my gear off, make shitloads of money and have the glory-job, but we auditioned me and it wasn't that good. So, I don't know what we would have done. It would have come down to something obvious like grabbing a fan of the band. We've had singers from other bands and it was one of those things where some people have done too many bands, if you know what I mean. So, we'd probably have tried a fan. That's the only way I could think of outside of Karl.

CoC: Was the thought ever in the back of your mind when you asked Karl, that the risk existed of him bailing on the band for a third time?

GW: When we asked Karl, it was with the understanding that it was until the end. It's something that I thought about, but I'd still give him the chance. He's done so much work with this band and there's so much pride in that, he should get the chance, even if he did bail. This was always his job. Not that I'd want to refer to it as a job, but it was his position or whatever else you want to call it.

CoC: Well, I'd definitely have to agree with you there, and I remember reading an interview with Jo [Bench, Bolt Thrower bassist] a few months ago, where she really hit the nail on the head by saying that Benediction was always Dave's band in the same way that Bolt Thrower has always been Karl's band.

GW: Exactly. If we had stuck with Martin van Drunen, we'd probably have sounded a bit more black metal. But in a live situation, it worked. Same thing with Dave -- he was a pro, and he could work a stage well and keep his shit together. When he played with us in big festivals that we did in Germany or whatever, it was killer. But he still sounded like he came from Benediction, and when we did _Honour, Valour, Pride_, all we could do was Bolt Thrower, if you see what I mean. A lot of the fans didn't like him either -- across the board. They always will see Karl as the singer.

CoC: I think that's very evident in the difference between an album like _Mercenary_ and _Honour, Valour, Pride_.

GW: Actually, now that you mention it, we re-recorded _Honour, Valour, Pride_ with Karl doing vocals when he had re-joined.

CoC: Wow! Is that ever going to be released?

GW: No. <laughs> It sounds killer though. What we did was to give Karl a whipping as soon as he came into the band, just by letting him record his vocals over those ten songs so that we could see what he was still capable of. We put one of the songs on the website for download for a little while, which was just a very rough mix and that sounded okay. I think we may in the future put some more of them up there for download, but I wouldn't want to release it, because I think it would cheapen the product and it would be an insult to Dave.

CoC: Working in the studio with Karl this time around, did it feel to you like Bolt Thrower in a greater sense than it felt when you were with Dave?

GW: Definitely. I mean, the first two months of Karl being back in the band, I spent more time with him than I did with Dave during his entire tenure -- and he toured with us! Karl and I just spent more time together, writing, hanging out -- it was well easy. In the studio, it's a different situation because it's always going to be more clinical; when you're doing something like recording vocals, you want everything to turn out just right. But I always thought it was going to be easy, and it fucking was. <laughs>

CoC: That's actually something I wanted to touch on, because you have been doing this for a long time now. How easy is it for you to keep writing new music and to keep things sounding fresh?

GW: It's a weird one, because Baz [Thomson, guitarist] writes all the music riff-wise. We sit in on it of course and make our own adjustments, but he writes every riff. He doesn't listen to a lot of music though. He used to. He used to listen to a lot of punk stuff, but he doesn't anymore, so he just pulls all this stuff out his ass. He always has, and he's always been killer at writing every riff. So, writing this album, he wrote a lot, and we did our thing with each song and we actually ended up with too many songs this time. We ended up with about thirty songs, and it just got stupid after a while. We had four hard drives worth of material and were about to fill up a fifth. I mean, record wise, our strategy has always been two years between albums. It hits about three or four these years, but in terms of the process, we normally record for about four months straight. We do a month and a half of pre-production before that and then we take about another two years to write. So at the end of the day, all of this is down to Baz. He writes the riffs, and Bolt Thrower is a riff / rhythm band. Baz hates solos, even though he's written a shitload of them over the years. He likes rhythm. I'm just glad the good riffs keep coming. The only problem with Baz is that he writes so much, he starts to lose perspective about what's good! <laughs>

CoC: So, all things considered, how was it different being in the studio for _Those Once Loyal_ in comparison to the first stuff you guys were doing twenty years ago?

GW: It was easy. It obviously takes time to get stuff right and to play stuff right, but we picked the right engineer. Andy Falkner -- I really rate him for recording, and if we didn't have him, I think we'd have put it down a lot sloppier. He made sure that we were doing things right and that everything was being played as best it can be.

CoC: You've been with Metal Blade for a while now, and it certainly seems as though they're doing a good job of pushing this new record. I recall everyone in the band saying at several intervals over the course of the last couple of years that getting Bolt Thrower off Earache was one of the best things for the band. Would you care to shed more light on that?

GW: They were killing us. We were locked into a situation where we'd just signed a new contract for big money -- very big; it was quite stupid, actually. But at that point, everyone was being offered stupid amounts of money, and Earache had just had the Columbia deal come on to the table, so there was real cash on the table if you towed the line and played the game. Some bands did, and you'd be surprised if you saw what record labels actually pay for. So, some went for that Columbian deal. They weren't really interested in Bolt Thrower, because basically we do our own thing and we don't allow anyone to interfere. We've always made sure of that. Not in a negative way -- we don't fuck around with others, and we expect them not to fuck around with us. So, Earache was putting big money in and giving you no promotion. They'd pay you big advances, but the only place you'd actually get promoted would be England. In other countries we were struggling. Earache, from our point of view, had decided who they were going to prioritize and we weren't one of them. And it comes down to really simple shit. Napalm Death opened that label. Make no mistake about it. If Napalm didn't exist, then that label wouldn't have either. Carcass was his [Digby Pearson, Earache founder] favourite musical style. Morbid Angel were his first North American signing. And Bolt Thrower really wasn't anywhere in the equation. By the time we were signed to Earache, we'd already done an album on Final Solution records, we'd done two Peel sessions, and we were already in contact with Games Workshop at that point.

CoC: Nothing really came of that though, did it?

GW: Well, the management for Games Workshop got in touch with us and offered us everything -- management, stage sets, you name it. But we were also worried about going with a games company at that time, who wouldn't know how to handle record sales and things like that. So, we thought that we'd take advantage of the best of both worlds, but the Games Workshop deal ended up being very difficult as well, when it came to things like the right to artwork and so on. It's like anything -- when corporations get involved, they inevitably always get in the way. With Earache it took us a year and a half to get off that label and it got to the point where we had to treat them like fucking assholes, because we had to get kicked off. There are two choices to get off Earache. One is to get kicked off and one is getting off legally. Get off legally? There's no way. The advances were too big. So, the only option was to get kicked off. And that's what we set out to do -- didn't play the game, didn't do whatever, and after a year and a half they said: "That's it, you're off." In the meantime, we'd already received the Metal Blade contract, but hadn't signed it because if we knew that if we had done that, then Earache would have never let us go. So once we got the letter from them, that was it. We signed the contract with Metal Blade the next day.

CoC: And with a label that had a strong presence in both the US and Europe, that meant that your problems with promotion would come to an end?

GW: Absolutely. I mean, I remember a classic example on Earache with _For Victory_. They postered all of three towns -- the ones where we lived! They did it so that we would see the posters and think that there was promotion being done. It was unreal. It was retarded shit.

CoC: That is pretty unbelievable.

GW: Well, you know -- you look at what the label scene was like when Earache was in its prime and labels like Nuclear Blast and Century Media and Metal Blade were just coming up. Those were small, independent labels -- now they're giants compared to Earache. Earache never had anyone with any intelligence running that label. What they got was an exodus of just about every band that ever meant anything, and the bands that left got bigger as soon as they left Earache.

CoC: So, on to a more pleasant topic. With the anniversary of John Peel's passing being fairly recent, I was hoping you'd share some of your memories of working with him.

GW: Well, when you record, he's not there, so we didn't work with him in the literal sense. We only met him once we had done two sessions, and he actually came down to one of our gigs with his family and we met him there. He definitely opened up doors for us, and the sad thing is that he won't be replaced. No one could, if you know what I mean. There's no one left with that purity of sound, where he just liked what he liked and that was it. It didn't matter of it was death metal, grindcore or the Bundu Boys' Caribbean Music. I mean, you listen to his show and there was some very extreme stuff and even more extreme differences between the stuff he was playing. John came along at a time when all you really needed was someone to believe in the band. I mean, shows back then hardly had anyone attending. There was no one going to shows, but fucking hell -- there were tons of bands! So, there were tons of bands, no crowd and everyone just trying to perfect playing to empty venues. And then it slowly started to get better, and everyone started slipping out into Europe. But a lot of it was down to Peel in those days. He believed in us. And the great thing was that you got paid whenever you did those sessions, and you got to record in one of the best studios in England, which is something you would never have been able to afford to do. I mean, we were signed up after the first session. We were signed up the next day. Of course, doing the recording was weird in itself, because you're playing live, so if someone fucks up, it's back to the start of the song. And we were so young and so nervous at that time that the four songs on the first Peel sessions took about twelve hours to record. I still remember the first night it was played. We had actually forgot about it being aired and we were driving down to the pub with a load of our mates, and someone reminded us and we turned it on and it sounded fucking awesome.

CoC: I think to close off the interview, let me ask you how you feel about Bolt Thrower's future at the moment.

GW: <pauses> Never think about it. To win? To win what? Who knows! <laughs> You know, it's coming on to twenty years now, but we won't be celebrating twenty years. In the end, you're still just trying to write the ultimate Bolt Thrower album. And I'd like to think that we've come close with _Those Once Loyal_, but I don't know. Maybe it's come and gone. Maybe it will never come. Right now, we just want to hit the road. We've been cooped up too long. Karl's back, the band's playing again and we just want to get out there. As for the future -- who knows? We just take it as it comes. I still go to venues expecting nobody to show up. For me the important thing is: as a band, when we play on stage, we're either fucking killer or fucking shit. There's no middle ground. And I would hate for us to hit that mediocrity. It comes down to doing what you love, and I would hate for us to think that we're ever going through the motions, if you know what I mean.

(article submitted 31/10/2005)

1/14/2002 A Bromley Bolt Thrower: Metal Pride
1/16/1999 P Schwarz Bolt Thrower: Mercenaries; Battling For Victory
10/10/2005 J Smit 9 Bolt Thrower - Those Once Loyal
1/14/2002 D Rocher 7 Bolt Thrower - Honour, Valour, Pride
10/1/1998 A Bromley 7 Bolt Thrower - Mercenary
3/14/1999 M Noll Bolt Thrower / Crowbar / Totenmond Zeus Himself Would've Been Proud
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