By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN we were all much younger interviews with guys in bands told us about things were were experiencing ourselves: alcohol, drugs, sex, travel.
Today, our musical heroes have grown up and – supposedly – so have we. So it’s refreshing to hear from someone like 56-year-old Metal Church guitarist and songrtier Kurdt Vanderhoof, who offers perspectives on issues you and I have to grapple with now – disgust with our own industries, radical decisions to ensure a life isn’t wasted, how curiosity and the thirst for knowledge have no shelf life.
Metal Church are touring Australia for the first time this month. Given that they’ve been around since 1980, that is all the evidence Kurdt needs that musicians who rhapsodise about the old days should pocket the rose-coloured glasses forthwith.
“I actually prefer it now,” he says down the phone line.
“You take the good with the bad but the upside for me outweighs the bad. The upside is bands of our age – I don’t call us ‘old’, I call us ‘veterans’ – we can continue to still work legitimately. We can still make records and put out music and our fans are still there.
“That’s pretty amazing and that’s a good thing. We may never achieve the arena factor but that’s OK. We still get to play. We get to go to Australia for the first time. That doesn’t suck.
“We’re working more now and we’re having more fun.
“It’s up to us now. Everything in the music business now, at least in terms of metal and rock, it’s kind of back to doing it yourself. That’s not only the bands but booking agents and record companies for sure. Yeah, you’ve still got a couple of the majors but they pretty much only deal with pop stuff.
“We can say to our booking agent, manager ‘hey, we want to go to Australia now. Talk to somebody!’. It’s kind of all in our control now which is another upside.”
Metal Church’s comeback single a couple of years ago was “By The Numbers”, a cautionary tale of doing what everyone expects of you. The accompanying video depicted a successful businessman waving goodbye to his wife and then going back inside his luxury home to rock out with his scruffy mates.
After touring with Metallica, Vanderhoof should have been on top of the world in the mid-eighties. Instead, he quit his own band. He had no intention of living his life – even one that others envied – by the numbers.
“After we did the Metallica tour, we toured on The Dark, I knew for me personally … I had to go in a different direction,” he recalls.
“… really working properly in the studio for the first time, my interest and passion really started getting into he engineering and producing and really starting to learn how to make records and working in the studio.
“I didn’t want to spend my time on the road.
“I love gigging and all that stuff but I’ve got to be honest; being on tour for months at a time – that’s why people are alcoholics and drug addicts There’s nothing to do. The show’s great but the two and a half hours you spend preparing for the show then playing the show then after that …. you’ve got 20 hours a day for months where you don’t have anything to do.
“That just drove me nuts. Sometimes it still drives me nuts but we don’t tour in the same capacity as we did then.
“Those kinds of things … I found myself really wanting to be productive more. I wanted to learn to make records and I’m glad I did because this has allowed me to continue in my career now because I make the records now and I have for a long time.
“That’s my passion and that’s why I do other styles and other records and do other kinds of things. I love music and I love creating music and I love recording and making records. That was my path.
“As everybody knows, I stayed involved in writing and working in the studio with everybody and that was great but that was my direction and I don’t regret it for a minute.”
Three decades later, Kurdt not only produces and engineers Metal Chuch’s albums but does the same roles for other artists, can fully design cover art and recently recorded a solo album on which he played every instrument.
At close to the height of Metal Church’s popularly, he left to future-proof himself. He prepared for a day that no-one actually knew was coming, when then-overblown rock bands would have to do it all themselves. Others couldn’t see what was wrong with the music industry at the time – but it was obvious to Vanderhoof.
“The recording industry … you sign a contract, you get advanced a whole bunch of money, it doesn’t sell, the record company gets paid back out of your money and you never see another dime.
“Just that whole business model went away, which is a good thing for today but it changes the way it’s done and you don’t really sell big records anymore. But on the other hand, you don’t really need to sell big records anymore to make the same amount of money.
“The other side of that is you don’t have a big record company putting a bunch of money into you and promoting you big … but then again you don’t really need to because you can promote yourself…”
As a Bay Area thrash band, Metal Church will probably see the word “seminal” pop up in their press for the rest of their lives.
“We were part of the thrash movement but we weren’t really thrash. We were kind of thrashy,” Kurdt says with a chuckle, unselfconsciously discussing his band in the past tense.
“There was a great review once in Sounds on NME, one of the English papers, right when we were first signing our record deal, the first album just came out. They called us a phrase that to this day I really, really like. They called us ‘thinking man’s death metal’.
“As far as the thrash influence goes, we were more on the melodic side of things. If modern bands dig into our catalogue, they’ll find that to be fairly consistent throughout our career. We were heavy and very riff-oriented but I always tried to keep it as musical as possible.
“I always had to have a singer who actually sang, notes and melody and things like that. Those kinds of things were always very important to me – and the memorable riff. Don’t play so fast that it just sounds like a four-minute tantrum.”
The message, then: you’ve only got so much time on earth and there’s no point wasting it. Metal Church’s style may have been locked in almost four decades ago but Kurdt Vanderhoof’s creative journey is still very much evolving. That solo record might be out by the end of the year.
“It’s about me trying to do a classic guitar hard rock record, along the lines of Ted Nugent and Montrose’s first record. Good old meet and potatoes basic guitar rock. And I wanted a personal challenge where I did everything.
“I played the drums, I sang it, I wrote everything, I produced it, engineered it. That wasn’t out of ego – just to see if I could do it! It’s done. I don’t know if anyone’s going to … it’s getting closer to maybe seeing the light of day. I’m talking with Ratpak Records about maybe releasing that around November.
“iI’s a really weird thing. I like it musically but just because I know I’m singing on it, it’s really kind of odd and really kind of uncomfortable but I have to get past that. At least Ratpak likes it enough to maybe put it our so maybe it’s OK.
“It’s yet o be confirmed but it’s just something that I had to do. It creates another outlet. It’s the kind of stuff that when I sit down and play guitar, it’s what comes out of my hands without thinking.”
Now, bear in mind Vanderhoof had to retrain himself from scratch 30 year ago to be in the position to do all this now.
“Well, as far as studio engineering was concerned that was trial and error. It was a case of spending a fair chunk of money – because bad then, it was old school. I bought a 16-track tape machine, a small console and just some basic stuff and just started doing it. .. learning and talking to engineer friends ….
“When I left the band, I put together my own recording studio.
“As far as the songwriting is concerned, that’s something I just kept doing and kept doing and kept doing and I’m still striving to be good at that and still striving to write the Sargeant Pepper or Dark Side Of The Moon .. because that’s like an unending challenge.
“That’s why I do different things – just to expand my abilities. Whether I’m OK at it, I don’t really know but its all about really trying to expand my creativity and being as creative as possible.”
Not only is Kurdt Vanderhoof seeing a bigger percentage of any money we spend on his work than he did 30 years ago, he’s also giving us more in return – a roadmap of making the most of one’s stint on this mortal coil.