ASPHYX's Martin Van Drunen - “It’s All JOHN TARDY's Fault”
November 26, 2017, a year ago
Dutch death metal legend Martin Van Drunen has been gurgling out his unique style of cookie monster vocals since the late ‘80s when Pestilence started to turn people’s heads with Malleus Maleficarum (1988) and Consuming Impulse (1989). But as you read below, his acrimonious split with the band still leaves a sour taste and his vision for what I consider to be a triumph to this day, Testimony Of The Ancients, he minces no words. Of course this led to the spawning of Asphyx, Hail Of Bullets and for a short period on the road with Bolt Thrower. But now his total focus is Asphyx-ated, the aftershocks of 2016’s Incoming Death still rumbling to this day. So at the recent Summer Breeze festival in Germany, I sat guzzling beers with the opinionated growler, who like an old dog, is tough to learn new tricks. Just intent building his extreme metal vision, pushing quality death metal deeper into our craniums. For some lessons in violence, step into the pit.
BraveWords: For nearly 30 years you’ve survived waving the death metal flag.
Van Drunen: “Yes I do my best, to survive and still have fun. I still have, and if I didn't have that I would quit. Yes since 1986 or ’87. The first was like this and festivals all over the world, for us as a band and for me as a person and a metalhead, it’s all for the good.”
BraveWords: Obviously there's a deep appreciation for the bands that started the genre as you travel around the world.
Van Drunen: “Yes, but the select few still have to work just as hard to prove themselves that they still belong to that select few. Asphyx is the band that goes on stage unprepared. We just go on and have a shit load of fun; go rage, have a good time, enjoy what you're doing. Enjoy that you've got a massive crowd in front of you, then you get everything you want. That is the mentality that I grew up with watching bands like older Motörhead or older Venom. Metallica at the start were like that too. Old Maiden, Priest whatever. It's just something that they passed on to me and I will pass it on today to the people. It's a privilege to be able to do that after all these years.”
BraveWords: So these bands passed the torch to you, but what did you feel in your heart to make it even more extreme, with a unique vocal style that was more brutal than anything before. How did it get heavier, and why did it have to get heavier?
Van Drunen: “First of all I don't consider myself what you are saying. I'm just blessed with the vocals that I have. Do they sound original? I trained for it and I worked for, that's all I can say. But when I listened to metal, it started with Kiss, then you start looking for more extremities so you found Motörhead. Back in those days there was nothing heavier than Motörhead. That was fucking extreme. And then you went to the concerts and you’d see the Hells Angels puking around the corner. They couldn't even take it. And as a little kid I’d say, ‘the bass is in my throat, in my fucking stomach, but I’m standing and I can take it!’ I was really proud. Then later on of course came Venom. But for me Venom was the bridge between what was supposed to be heavy metal and something entirely unimaginable. The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal wasn’t as loud as Motörhead was. Iron Maiden’s ‘Prowler’ is a fast song, but if you compared it to the noise of ‘Overkill’ or ‘Bomber’ … and Venom were more extreme than Motörhead. I loved that. You’re a kid, you're angry. Venom were disappointed with Black Sabbath. All their songs were about Christ and God and they are the only ones that are going to save you. And Venom said hell was the place to be. That's where they have the bars and the beautiful girls; you do not want to go to heaven. So Venom in that way was very important when I was a kid, 16 years old. You just wanted to rebel. For me, Venom were the ultimate rebellion. So they set that kind of a standard and everything followed after. From Slayer to Possessed. And everything evolved and evolved and evolved. So I got into that with Pestilence, influenced by that. But the other Pestilence guys were influenced by other things like King Diamond, which wasn’t my thing.”
BraveWords: Was it anti-religion back then for you?
Van Drunen: “No, I've always been anti-religion. I was raised that way. My mom came from a very religious family. There's one thing my dad said to me when he was volunteering for church. He had to prepare the places in church for people. And then he found out that the rich ones were sitting in front of the church, so he went to the pastor and said ‘the rich ones are sitting in front because they are paying more for their tickets to heaven.’ The pastor said ‘Yes, but it's really important because without them…’ And my father interrupted and said ‘So it's all about fucking money then?’ No answer. ‘Fuck off, I’m stepping out of all this shit.’ And we never went to church again. So my dad actually taught me to think like an atheist. So I'm an atheist.”
BraveWords: Do you remember the day when you looked in the mirror and said ‘I really need to perfect this vocal style.’ Lemmy times ten.
Van Drunen: “No, that never happened. During Consuming Impulse, the guys kind of fucked me up to do more brutal things. ‘No Martin, that’s not it. We have a demo of a band called Executioner. Listen to this guy.’ Which was Obituary of course. And I said ‘I can’t do that.’ So I got really pissed off and walked out of the studio and went to a bar next-door in Berlin. And everybody was looking for me. So the next day I came in and said ‘What the hell do you want to hear then?’ So I opened up my mouth and growled and they said ‘That’s it you bastard, that way.’ So that's how I sang on Consuming Impulse, but I wasn't trained. Then we did the American tour for two months and my voice was lasting. From there I found my technique and what to do with it. And then I stepped into Asphyx. That first performance on The Rack after Consuming Impulse was one that I was really pleased with. There I could show what extremities I could do with my voice. From low to high to everything. I gave it a shit fucking effort and I was pleased. But it was never as you say, looking into the mirror. Just wanted to integrate into the music that we were making and fit well and make it sound really brutal.”
BraveWords: So it was John Tardy’s fault then?
Van Drunen: “Basically yes.
BraveWords: Why are some of these originators making some of the best records of their career today. Is that even possible?
Van Drunen: “Obituary are like us, they don't have anything to prove anymore. So you can go to the studio, you are laid-back, and you do your thing. And if you like it yourself, that's all that matters. I would never sing on something that I don't like. ‘Fuck it, it's a shit song and I will never do it.’ And with Obituary, it's probably the same. They just go into the studio and say ‘Let’s create some fucking death metal rock n’ roll,’ whatever you want to call it and have a good time. Because that's a big difference too. When you were kids, to go into the studio was a big thing. ‘Harris Johns, the man that did Kreator!’ Or the man that did Voivod. Now you go to the studio and just blast away and just do it. It’s like going on stage, just enjoy this shit. As a kid you were nervous, but now there's a completely different approach. And that’s the key with bands like Obituary and Aphyx. And I'm real curious what Possessed are going to do. I can't wait for that. There's also a lot of bands from now, that deserve a break.”
BraveWords: But with all this hard work and legendary status, your stock should be higher so to speak.
Van Drunen: “Bands like Amon Amarth for example, who grew up with Asphyx, and all of a sudden they are huge. We aren't envious of these bands, we wish them their luck, because they've worked hard for it as well. And they are kind of a bridge - even though they are more popular - a bridge to more extreme things. People listen to Amon Amarth and maybe they’ll pick up an Obituary album. On the other hand, bands like Volbeat - what the fuck are you guys doing? Please disappear. You are shit. But yeah, they are big. Really big. To me it sounds like a band that likes to make rock 'n' roll, but they can't. And the singer sounds like he's got a baseball up his ass all the time. And yeah maybe it's a credit to the record label or the entire promotion machine that's behind it to make them big, but I really don't like it. And there are other bands, like Sabaton, it's the same shit. Fucking hell you know.”
BraveWords: Asphyx reinventing the wheel of death metal; how much of a challenge is it to keep things interesting and fresh? And at the same time grow the scene.
Van Drunen: “You need to be a fan of your own band. Let me give you an example. I was a huge Celtic Frost fan. When they came out with Cold Lake, that was a stab in the back for me. I threw that shit in the garbage. Even Triptykon to me - they may sound nice but I can't forgive the guy. How can you ever as a metal guy make an album like Cold Lake? There has to be something inside you. If I was in the studio and created something that sounded like Cold Lake, I would say no, that is not going to be brought out. That's rubbish, that's not me. That's not metal. So what I'm trying to say, is that being fans of the genre yourself, you don't want to disappoint your fans. Going to the studio with tracks that we love ourselves. The first thing you ask is, are we going to like it? If we like it ourselves, fans will like it too. It's kind of an easy thing to work with. We look at a song and think that this is the Asphyx part, the doom part, an uptempo part, an old-fashioned death metal part. If we like it, we know the fans will like it too. Because we are metalheads ourselves.”
BraveWords: What fuels your creativity. How do you get in the zone?
Van Drunen: “Lyric-wise. I could write an Asphyx album, but I leave it up to Paul (Baayens; guitarist) because he does a fantastic job. But we communicate when he comes up with certain pieces, certain parts of songs. What I try to do with riffs and songs, I try to visualize them. What part of history or the parts that are happening in your life, what fits into this riff. Then I try to forge that together. I read a lot. But I like to read first and my second passion is metal. The meeting itself gives me a shit load of inspiration. It may not be a certain novel but a piece of it that I need to get deeper into. And you think, ‘This will fit that song.’ So I'm always reading, every fucking day I'm reading. As an example, a few weeks I'll go Paul asked me if I could give him some guidance with some new titles, new material. So I sent him what I had, and all of a sudden to my own surprise, I had 25 new song ideas from him. I'm sorted for the next three albums more or less.”
BraveWords: There is so much lyrical fodder for death metal bands with this violent world we live in. Why would you need to read a book?
Van Drunen: “Yeah if you do that, a lot of other bands will pick that shit up, so I try to be original and deeper. A good example is from the last album (Incoming Death) called “Subterra Incognita”. My girlfriend lives in Paris, and they’ve got a shit load of subways there. And when you take the last one at one o’clock in the morning you see another fucking society living in the tunnels. I don't know where they come from and I don't know how they keep themselves alive. So I dug deeper into the topic, and apparently you got whole societies in Los Angeles and New York and god knows how deep they live in these old sewer systems. But that shit is not gonna hit the news. But it does exist and it's kind of sinister, but it's very interesting though.”
BraveWords: What did you think when you heard Testimony Of The Ancients for the first time?
Van Drunen: “They fucked it up on production.”
BraveWords: Were you jealous that you weren't in the band anymore?
Van Drunen: “No, because after the US tour they wanted to check into Morrisound (Studios in Tampa, Florida), and I said ‘No, I don’t give a fuck about Morrisound. That’s an American sound and it doesn’t fit the European thing.’ From all the Morrisound productions, the first Obituary is quite heavy, but it's way too compressed. If you would’ve recorded (Death’s) Scream Bloody Gore at the Music Lab in Berlin, it would’ve been double as heavy. You just listen to Killing Technology from Voivod or Pleasure To Kill from Kreator. Scott (Burns) compressed as much as he could and I didn’t like it. It was too American, too polished. They always do that, they polish things. If you take the old European shit, whether it be Venom, Discharge, The Exploited or Voivod, it sounds raw. I don’t know why.”
BraveWords: You must have had the biggest balls with that attitude back then.
Van Drunen: “I don't know. We had already split up during the tour. I was doing my thing and the band was doing their thing. I was just doing basically the obligation, because we had paid $10,000 to be on the Death tour and for us poor guys that was a lot of money. Borrowed the money from a friend of ours, but we had to sell a shit load of merchandise to make it back. When we came back we were $2000 short. Anyway, when the band said ‘Martin, we re going to stay and fly to Morrisound,’ I said ‘go fuck your Morrisound, I'm gonna go home now, fed up spending two months in this country, tired, no decent food and I’d been drinking fifty beers a day.’”
BraveWords: Shitty American beer…
Van Drunen: “Yes, that’s why we had to drink fifty beers a day! But then the band called me and it was like a tribunal, the three of them facing me. It was like three judges when I arrived. ‘You were shit, you were drinking too much…’ So I said, ‘I'm not gonna listen to this shit, go enjoy yourself, fuck you and your band I'm out. Good bye.” So I went home and did The Rack with Harry (Wijering) and an eight-track recorder. And after I heard Testimony… I thought that ours sounded rawer and we paid maybe $1500 to do the whole Rack album. And they said they paid $20,000 for Morrisound. Let's be honest, Testimony may have been a great album, but it didn’t have the balls that Consuming Impulse had. Simple. Then afterwards of course, live they were shit.”
BraveWords: Not factoring in any finances or budget issues, what producer would you like to work with?
Van Drunen: “No one. Because a producer tries to influence you we are not in the band to be influenced. I remember Harris Johns with Pestilence, he started to complain about certain things and (Patrick) Mameli and I told him ‘Roadrunner pays you to record our album, so shut your fucking hole and record our album! That's all you need to do. Don't come with your personal ideas or whatever.’ A producer always wants to be involved because they want to be mentioned on the songs as a co-songwriter. Because that’s what brings in money afterwards if it turns out to be a hit. The real money. As a band you just delivered your soul to the devil, because it's not you. If you ask me about a producer, fuck them all. I would tell Bob Rock that he’s the one that fucked up Metallica. I just want them to go back to Kill ‘Em All.”
BraveWords: What other albums from that era really disappointed you like Cold Lake?
Van Drunen: “I was in America when MTV made this announcement about a new Metallica, and I was doing promotion for Crush The Cenotaph EP (1992). So I was really curious because it was the first Metallica after …And Justice For All, which was not such a good album in my opinion. So when “Enter Sandman” came on, Metallica just died in front of us. ‘Let’s go to a fucking bar and get fucking drunk.’ And we did. And we killed them all! It’s stupid bullshit because they turned huge with that. I saw them three times with Cliff in my shit little hometown in the Netherlands! And as a little kid I actually had a few sips of vodka with Cliff and James. I was on my fucking bicycle. So that's one band that really disappointed me, but on the other hand you wish them their success. But there are a lot of bands that disappoint me nowadays. When they perform live, all they are doing is filling their pockets.”
BraveWords: Tell us about your time spent with Bolt Thrower. How well did you know late drummer Martin Kearns?
Van Drunen: “Yeah, unfortunately we had to face one of the biggest losses in metal with Martin Kearns from Bolt Thrower. They are such a family kind of band, they weren't just musicians together, it was a brother and sisterhood. People forget when I joined Bolt Thrower, he was new too. So we were the newbies, but I was the old soldier with Pestilence and Asphyx. I had my tours and I had my experience, but he was 17 years old and didn't know anything. And all off a sudden you are behind this war machine called Bolt Thrower. But I can't imagine that they will throw in the towel for eternity. On the other hand, I know how they think, I was in the band for three years, two tours. The worst problem is that they need to find the right person to fit in. There are a lot of metalheads that can't live with the loss of Bolt Thrower in that scene. It was pure, honest British heavy metal and I hope they come back. But I doubt it.”
(Press photos by Dario Dumancic)