Brethren of the Hammer

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Is Manilla Road a cult heavy metal band? Who cares? You shouldn’t. What you should care about is the fact that this superb Wichita-based group has been raising the flag and saluting since 1977 in spite of a music scene that has been far too indifferent in the United States, at least outside of a rabid core fan base. As usual, Europe has been a different story for Manilla Road, a region in which the act has no trouble commanding a festival audience. It seems all Europe sees is a forward thinking band with lyrical themes that run deep and a style that is musically progressive, yet firmly based in classic heavy metal, rather than “cult.” All cynicism about America’s fickle attitudes aside, the fact is that Manilla Road is a celebrated, highly influential Heavy Metal institution with an impressive body of work that has been given a boost this century through CD and vinyl reissues by Shadow Kingdom Records in North America and High Roller Records in Europe. The last album, Playground of the Damn, was released last year and since then the band has brought in a great new German-based drummer in Andreas Neuderth and is planning to release a follow-up album before 2012 becomes a memory. In the interim the self-titled debut from Hellwell, the side project of guitarist/vocalist/composer and founding member Mark “The Shark” Shelton, will be released through Shadow Kingdom Records. All that and more awaits your prying eyes in this interview with the ever genial and always interesting Shelton. Read on and Up The Hammers!


It seems that Manilla Road has been a new discovery for many people these last few years, which is surprising considering the band has been around for three decades. Even in Kansas, otherwise well informed fans don’t seem to be familiar with the band.


I think we’re one of those bands that some people missed along the way because we’ve been primarily an underground band for a long time. Even though we’re fairly popular in a lot of places at this point we’re still pretty much just an underground band. We’re not a household name like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or anything like that, even though we’ve been around for over three decades. It’s just one of those things where we stuck to our guns and did everything ourselves and did it our own way. We turned downed contracts from people that probably could have gotten us farther up the ladder quicker. Even though we haven’t become the big rich, famous friggin’ rock stars, I’ll tell you what, the fans we do have are the most dedicated, the most undying fans a band could ever have.


That’s certainly obvious.


It’s the dedication over the last 30 odd years and the fact that we are still here putting out albums and trying to reinvent the wheel in our own way. I think people have gotten to the point where they appreciate the diligence and they know that we’re here forever [laughs]; the only thing that’s going to stop me is death and even then I’m going to see if I can figure out like Houdini a way to come back and do some more [laughs].


It’s interesting to watch after so many years when things begin to click and suddenly you start reading about all these great bands citing Manilla Road as an influence. Then you’ll start seeing people with that puzzled look on their faces wondering who this Manilla Road band is and thinking “man, I better check these guys out.”


I think you’re totally correct. Obviously, when we started the band the Internet wasn’t a factor. The Internet is a double-edged sword for bands like us. It’s really helpful in the sense that we’re probably being introduced to shitloads of people if it wasn’t for the Internet, but at the same time all the illegal downloads and digital bootlegging and stuff that goes on makes it so that we don’t make the kind of money that we really ought to be making. But how can you really knock something that is helping us become more popular than ever? It’s just one of those things that you have to live with. It’s something that the major labels are dealing with too; they’re trying to figure it. It’s like all the big acts are starting to realize that the only way they’re really going to make money is on merchandise and going out and touring all the time. That seems to be an issue with a lot of bands and until they can figure something out that can be a little more secure so that when they release a product it doesn’t just get bounced all around the Internet.


That Internet thing was actually a little detrimental to us when we released Playground of the Damned, our last album, because the very first thing that got ripped and put on YouTube and some other places were really bad rips from the LP because the LP came out before the CD did. So right at the very first we got several reviews that saying that it sounded like shit and that the production was terrible and that we must have recorded it in a cave and blah, blah, blah. One of the guys that reviewed it that way had actually gone to our website and purchased the CD from us and when he got it he listened to it and was like “Oh my god!” and sent us an apology right away saying “I just got the CD from you guys and it sounds so much different than the download that I heard and I have to apologize for the review I gave you guys, and the questions I have in my interview for the production being slightly off; it sounds really fuckin’ great!” And I was like “Man, can you print that?” [Laughs]


You’ve got to give him credit for that; a lot of people would have just blown it off and moved on. That’s pretty classy.


Oh yeah, I was totally appreciative of the guy and we were doing an interview at the time too. So I think he included a lot of what I said about the ripping of it and all that. I had asked the question in that same interview, wondering how many other bands were facing this same problem. I expect it could be quite a few.


The resurgence of vinyl seems to have helped bands like Manilla Road as well. There have been several Manilla Road reissues and new releases on vinyl.


Yeah, everything we’re reissuing is coming out on vinyl and it’s cool. They’ve got the full size posters in every release, the artwork has been retouched to make it more vivid and colorful, and that’s needed. At the time for some of those albums I just didn’t have the money to spend.


I just saw that [1985’s] Open the Gates is being reissued by High Roller Records.


Yeah, it’s just coming out. As a matter of fact, I just got my copies of it. It’ll be available on the website here real soon. And I know Shadow Kingdom has been doing really well about getting CDs out there. Shadow Kingdom is a little smaller label than High Roller who can get things moving a little quicker and have a little bit better money flow.


But Shadow Kingdom really kind of helped to raise awareness about Manilla Road this century.


I’ve been pretty lucky here lately. Over the first many years of the band it was tougher. At first we did ok with Black Dragon Records [who originally released Open the Gates] and they were very honest with us and we got our money. The CD thing wasn’t really happening at that point so we were making a lot of money; we were selling a lot of albums in Europe. We were extremely popular in France at that time. They were some other places in Europe and the States that weren’t too friendly to us at that time. I remember Kerrang in England way back in the day called us the ugliest band in rock. Nobody really supported us. But what was strange is that all the magazines that had said all that nasty stuff about us are still putting stuff out now, like Rock Hard in Germany, have turned 180 degrees around and now they love us. I guess better late than never [laughs]. Stuff like that helps too. And I’ve got to give credit like you did to all the bands that have cited us as an influence and some of them have been pretty formidable bands that are out that now, like Darkthrone in Norway; those guys are huge. They put out a song called “Raised on Rock” [from 2007’s F.O.A.D] and one of the lines is “we sold our souls to Manilla Road.” People like them are so avidly into us and promote us all over the place by saying these guys are great and they were a huge influence on us and all that. That’s been a big plus. That’s helped us to cross over into different genres and different markets. Since we’ve experimented and dabbled in so many different styles over the last 15 albums we’ve actually reached people all over the marketplace in the underground and we’ve influenced bands in black metal to death metal to doom metal to speed metal, prog metal, and the whole nine years. God there are so many types of metal now I can’t keep track of ‘em all [laughs]. I’m guilty of the same thing though. When people were first asking us what style of music we played, what kind of heavy metal, I’d say it’s epic metal I guess.


You’re one of those “cult heavy metal” bands and I’m still not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, except that it indicates some form of underground metal with credibility in certain circles.


Yeah, I saw an article about us where the main theme was that Manilla Road is a cult. I was like “we are?” [laughs] So if I tell people to drink suicide lemonade then they’re all going to do it? [laughs].




So let’s not do that then [laughs].


Just don’t change your name to Jim Jones.


[Laughs] No doubt.


But you do seem quite pleased with what Shadow Kingdom and High Roller have done.


Oh yeah. I’m really happy with who I’m working with right now because they’re honest people and I get the money when I’m supposed to get it. For years we kept on running into label deals where we got ripped off. Even one of the last European labels we worked with on our on our Voyager album we really got stuck on that one, man. It’s like man, are we ever going to be on a label that treats us the way we’re supposed to be treated? We found that in Shadow Kingdom and High Roller, so it would be really hard to ever separate ourselves from those guys and accept a bigger deal for example. I’ve always been fearful of somebody else having too much artistic control over the band. But at the same time I’m not getting any younger, I’m 54, and it would be really nice to see what Manilla Road could do if we were launched into the big marketplace, just to see what would happen. I never expected to be treated like a huge rock star like Aerosmith or something like that, but I think we could go a lot father than we have because of the artistic sense and the nature of the music is much more dramatic than what you get out of standard metal bands.


There is more depth to what Manilla Road does, so much so that the albums require a little more time investment to fully appreciate. Playground of the Damned is a good example and it’s a little bit different than some of the previous albums. It doesn’t hit you immediately; there is a slow burn to it that is really cool.


I do know what you mean. A lot of our products have been like that, especially to the American audience. Like when we put Gates of Fire out I think the American audience was like “huh?” [laughs] Because it was all about European myth and history and stuff like that. I did a big ole thing on Virgil’s version of the Fall of Troy and the Trojan War and everything, instead of Homer’s version. So it’s not your typical layout of how people are used to hearing the story, especially out here. But over there they understand fully well; anybody and everybody knows who Virgil is. But over here people go “who?” They’ve heard of Homer and they know he wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, but they are unaware that in the Mediterranean Virgil was a poet that wrote the whole saga as well and actually put it into more of a historic and actual legendary way of telling the tale, which was more incongruent with the legends of Romulus and Remus and stuff like that. Like how Trojans were actually the people to settle in Italy and become the Roman Empire later on. A lot of people don’t realize that here in the States. I mean it got deep. I had to read all 12 fuckin’ poems of Virgil and not only that, but they were in Greek! I had to work really hard with the translations [laughs]. I don’t read Greek! [laughs]


You are one ambitious guy when it comes to lyrics; that’s for sure.


Well, I just want to do something totally different than what anybody else has done with metal music.


And that’s part of the reason why the albums have such a lasting impact. But take “Grindhouse” from Playground of the Damned for example; that melody sneaks up on you and gets in your head. The chills, the accents…


It’s a dark album, yeah. That album was sort of a turning point. I have another band called Hellwell and we’re just now in the process of finishing up the artwork for our first release. I put this band together when Manilla Road was in sort of a lull or hiatus because of our drummer Cory [Christner] having a bunch of personal problems. We weren’t doing anything else so I decided to put this other band together. On the Playground of the Damned album we really wanted to do some really dark, heavy sounding stuff that was not too typical for us. Manilla Road has had some real positive stuff and some stuff that was real dark in nature, but there is always that whole positive morality base to almost everything we’ve done, even our horror stuff. When we were doing this Hellwell album we did a song called “White Chapel,” which was written in commemoration of Jack The Ripper’s 100th anniversary. The song “Deadly Nightshade,” which appears on the new Hellwell album was originally written for Playground of the Damned, but Cory did not ever come up with a suitable drum part for it. We ended up putting it on the Hellwell album instead. It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek version; it wasn’t really a serious attempt at being morally based or having any type of great words of wisdom within the lyrics [laughs]. It was just more for fun. And that’s sort of what Hellwell is about. Hellwell is sort of like the evil twin of Manilla Road. We kept sliding over into stuff like that because to tell you the truth Manilla Road’s life was sort of in chaos at that point. Everything around us was like weird dark stuff happening to us where people weren’t as focused as they should have been, people were getting in trouble with the law… It was just really a ridiculous time for about two or two-and-a-half years for us. At the same time were still trying to tour, write an album and record, and one thing or another just kept getting in the way of finishing Playground of the Damned. Between the bass player having problems with his hand and us having to get other bass players to get in there and work on the project and stuff… It was just was total chaos and we were in such a weird state of mind that the whole album turned into such a dark project. Like with “Abattoir de la Mort” we had people from France saying “Did you realize that you said the same thing twice?” [laughs] Yes, I know that; it’s a duality thing. I realize it’s the slaughterhouse of death. I’m not that stupid and I wouldn’t put a title out there like that otherwise. I had to explain the song to the French and they were like “Oh ok, I get it now” [laughs]. It’s like I’m having to explain myself at every turn, but I love that; it’s part of the mystique of the band and the lyrics that we do. With Hellwell I just wanted to do something that didn’t have any pretty shit in it [laughs]. So we put together this album with some different guys. All of us that are in Manilla Road, except for Cory, came in and did some guest spots on the album, like Josh [Castillo] who is in Manilla Road right now is on one song, Bryan [Patrick] sang a couple of songs on there… It’s probably not going to happen again. It’s just sort of a tie-in to let people know that we are connected to Manilla Road, but we aren’t Manilla Road. We’re already working on the second album for Hellwell as a matter of fact and I’m going to be the only Manilla Road member that’s actually on that project, although Mark Anderson, who was in Manilla Road some years back, is taking up bass duties in this Hellwell band.


The album we’re finishing up now is going to come out on Shadow Kingdom Records pretty soon. We just got finished mastering the final mix here in Wichita and I took it to another studio to master it this time. This one is by far the best production that has ever come out of my studio and should be sort of a taste of future recording that will come out for Manilla Road and Hellwell both. The drums are always the hardest thing to get right and this time we got closer to having a drum sound for this album that I just really love. We’re going to go with it to an even greater extent for the next Manilla Road album. We’ve got six rough tracks recorded for the next Manilla Road album and we’ve got about three more to write yet.


Of course, we’ve got a new drummer, Andreas Neuderth [ex-Economist, ex-Ripping Entrails, ex-Savage Grace (live session member), ex-Viron, ex-Seduction, ex-Sudden Darkness, ex-Excess] from Germany. It’s interesting because he lives in Germany and we live in the States, so we’re truly an international band now I guess [laughs]. He’s going to be coming over here to the States when we headline Warriors of Metal Fest in Ohio on June 29th [] and fly back to Wichita with us. We’re going to do all the drum tracks for the album then. He’ll stay with us for about a week or so. I’m actually thinking about recording the drums in another studio here that has a really great drum room. It’s more than I can do in my own studio. Then we’ll probably record the rest of the stuff in my studio because we do a great job with that stuff here.


What’s the story of Andreas’ entry into Manilla Road?


Well actually he’s been a fan of the band since about 1986. He was the first guy to put together an official Manilla Road website for us. He’s a drummer that has played in a lot of bands that are very well known in Europe. He also has a metal show on German TV that he’s been doing for years. In Germany he’s really popular. And his favorite band of all-time is Manilla Road of course and one of his favorite drummers of all-time is Randy Foxe [who played with the band from 1984 to 1990], so he developed his style of drumming virtually off of Randy. We met him as a band for the first time in Europe in 2000 playing the Bang Your Head Festival and from that point on we became really good friends. He’s done nothing but help promote us and we always meet up with him over there in Europe. It got to the point where I knew we were going to have to change drummers because things we’re going to work out with Cory. We had already booked the Hammer of Doom festival for last October and Andreas was the first person I thought of. Not only that but the promoter for Hammer of Doom is also the promoter for the Keep it True festival and he suggested the same thing. And Steffen, the owner of High Roller Records, is also good friends with “Neudi.” It’s just sort of a big family [laughs].


A lot of people don’t realize how deep our roots go into Europe. We’ve just had so much happen for us over and Europe and we’ve toured more over there than in the States. We’ve gotten an awful lot of traction and made a lot of friends over there. Andreas is the perfect drummer for us. After we played the Hammer of Doom festival it was obvious he was the one. It was like “oh yeah, this is what Manilla Road was supposed to sound like a long time ago.” It makes it really easy to do a lot of stuff like songs from Open the Gates,Crystal LogicThe Deluge… We’ve been able to add so many songs to the set because of his capabilities. He can play anything that Randy played basically. He was the obvious choice. We’re all good friends, we’re drinking buddies, he’s willing to tour with us; it just couldn’t be any better. It’s going to be great. It will be the first time he’s ever been in the United States when he comes over for Warriors of Metal fest. It’s going to be a thrill for him. We’re going to bring him back to Wichita and treat him to a chicken fried steak [laughs] and all sorts of stuff that he’s never heard of before. So we’ll show him what it’s like to live out in the Wild West [laughs].


He may even be surprised to find that Wichita is not some little cow town, but rather a pretty good sized city with 350,000 people.


Right, right! We joke with people in Europe all the time and tell ‘em that we still get our mail by Pony Express [laughs]. It might take a while for me to get back to you, but I’ll get back to you eventually [laughs].


Speaking of the drum sound though is there much you can do to enhance it at your own studio?


Well, my studio is basically what they call a project studio. It’s not huge rooms with huge ceilings… Anything that we do with ambient sounds has to be added in with effects basically, like reverb and stuff like that. And that’s why I think I’m going to go to Cornerstone Studio for the drums because they’ve got a really great drum room; it’s a huge, arched one and all hardwood and it’s got a beautiful, resonating sound. And he’s got microphones that are about five times more expensive than what I use [laughs]. So this time I figured maybe we’ll spend five grand and go to his studio for that this time. But it’s really hard to do that because we’re not rich guys. I mean we’re making ok money and there are even a decent amount of royalties coming in nowadays, but the truth of it is that I still work for a living because I love to have a decent lifestyle and I’ve got two kids that I’m pretty much raising on my own too now, although they’re almost to the age where I can boot ‘em out of the house [laughs]. And they’re still pretty costly too me. I have a job where I’m the operations manager of a corporation here in Kansas and I make a good salary at this place and it’s hard to give that up. And it’s a for-sure income and I get lots of time off to be able to tour. I’ll keep doing that until it just becomes obvious that “Oh, well I guess I can spend my time on the road all the time instead.” That may be coming and it’d be fun and I’d love to do it. I’m still in pretty good health for my age and I’m still capable of getting out there and doing it, and as long as I am I’m gonna be up there fuckin’ playing live. But yeah we’re really considering doing this because it’s worth it to spend that money. When you’ve got your own studio it’s not like “Ok, do I spend $5,000 over here and $5,000 on this over there?” Especially when you’re thinking in terms of doing the whole album… I remember we spent like $20,000 on [1988’s] Out of the Abyss [laughs] and it’s like “Oh my god, why would you even want to spend that kind of money when you’ve got your own studio?” But sometimes you’ve got to break away from the safe structure and actually go for something that even it’s going to cost you more money you take that leap of faith and hope that it’s going to make such a big difference that the product will sound gads better.


When are you thinking you’ll release the next Manilla Road album?


The next album should be out before the end of year I hope.


Let’s wrap up with your rundown of upcoming Manilla Road shows.


Yep, we leave the end of May to go to Finland, Sweden, and we’re doing our first show in London this year. We’re playing the Muskelrock Festival in Sweden on June 2nd and we’re doing a show in Helsinki the night before on June 1st. And the show in London is June 3rd I believe. That’s our first UK show ever, so that’s going to be cool. I’ve been there, but I’ve never actually played there. A lot of my family comes from England, Scotland, and Ireland; a lot of immigration in my family [laughs]. Between the Norse, Swedish, English, Irish, and Scottish in me I’m one of the traditional products of the immigration that settled the United States. The next U.S. show that we’re planning then is Warriors of Metal and once we finish recording the new album I think we’re going to do a show in Wichita as well. We don’t do many local shows because we learned a long time ago that the way to be big in your hometown is to not play there all the time [laughs]. And when we do play one in Wichita the people come out in throngs and we pack whatever place we play. We usually keep it in a club and we don’t try to act like we’re the big rock stars over here because we’ve never been treated like that over here [laughs]. We pick a club and we’ve got one here called The Port of Wichita and we’re really good friend with the owner and he treats us really well, and every time we play there he ends up having the best night with sales that he’s ever had [laughs]. And because I’m there trying to teach people how to toast in fuckin’ seven or eight different languages; that’s my trick to try to get people to drink. It seems to work out and everybody drinks with me and of course I get totally blasted in Wichita, even though I don’t usually drink on stage. But I do when I’m in Wichita [laughs]. I figure that when I’m done I can just go home and die and I have a lot of people that will take me home too [laughs].




  1. Commented by: Jodi

    Most excellent

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