Interview with drummer Mark Ruffneck
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: September 30, 2018
Heavy Metal veterans OZ arrived for Porispere festival, Pori, Finland, on August 3rd, 2018. Gone were vocalist Ape De Martini and the three Swedish lads that were a part of the band's line-up when they visited Porispere six years ago. The new line-up consists of members who surprisingly all live in Pori, near the original birthplace of the band, Nakkila and is responsible for OZ's seventh studio album, Transition State, released via Germany's AFM Records at the end of October 2017. Despite the struggles the band has faced since their comeback album Burning Leather, released in 2011, the new line-up wanted to show everyone that they take the band very seriously, as can be heard on their latest album.
Prior to showtime, drummer Mark Ruffneck picked up yours truly in his limousine on the way to the OZ rehearsal place. The following interview took place in the band's limousine and Mark explained some of the setbacks that drastically delayed the making of the band's latest studio opus, how he eventually found the completely new line-up, future plans, past relationships with Black Mark, etc.
COMING BACK HOME - PORI, FINLAND
Luxi: So, Mark, what's new in the OZ camp? The winds of change have been blowing quite a lot lately...
Mark: Indeed, that's very true. However, now we are here at the Porispere festival in Pori, which is also my birth town. It's also the town where the current members of OZ all live. It's great to play on home turf. We've only played occasionally even though our original plan was to play more shows this summer.
Anyway, we are glad to be it here and with this new OZ line-up, we have played a few shows. In a way, these shows can be considered our "dress rehearsals" before we play at a festival in France.
Luxi: The last time OZ played here at Porispere festival, in 2012, was with a totally different line-up. What do you remember about this experience?
Mark: Well, Pori is like my hometown. I lived nearby in a small village called Nakkila for about 21 years and during those years I naturally made a lot of friends. All in all, it was a very nostalgic trip for me. We hadn't played in Pori for a long time and seeing many familiar faces before and after the show, was very nice. There were some acquaintances in the crowd that I hadn't seen for almost 20 years.
Luxi: The line-up back then consisted of Ape De Martini, you, and three Swedish lads.
Mark: Yeah, true. Jay C. Blade who was also a part of the official OZ line-up at that time got busy with some other band which was playing at some other festivals around the same time. That's why we had to find a replacement for him, a Swedish guy named Johannes Sandberg.
I cannot help but think of the origins of OZ now. I remember forming the band with our first bassist (Tauno "Tani" Vajavaara). OZ was our brainchild. Unfortunately, he's not with us any longer. He was buried the very same day as Lemmy's funeral. Our first guitarist, Kari Elo, who played on our debut album, left the band about a year before we recorded the follow-up album, Fire in the Brain.
OK, old memories aside now. When we played at this festival in 2012, it felt great, of course! Coming home always feels good, as I have been living in Sweden since 1983. I do remember that we have played in Pori a long time ago, but not at a festival. It must have been some sort of a youth house or an equivalent place where played a show or two at the beginning of OZ's career.
Luxi: Are you any worried how you will be received here at Porispere, knowing there may be some die-hard fans in the audience for whom Ape is the only true OZ vocalist?
Mark: Not for me but maybe for the rest of my new team it may feel kind of exciting to play at the festival, knowing they will perform in the front of their home crowd. The crowd will surely be full of friends, relatives, familiar faces, etc. I am sure everyone here knows who these guys are because they all have their own local bands or projects. It has both its positive as well negative side as well, I suppose.
Then again, every time you go out and play, it does have its little nervous moment before the actual showtime. It's just natural for all of us, right?
Luxi: That's all true. Perhaps these new guys will be playing in front of their biggest crowd yet.
Mark: That's quite possible. However, both Juzzy and Peppi have played in Pori-based Dingo (a popular, Finnish-language "Glam Rock" band between 1982 and 1986) and done gigs with them. They also worked with the band's frontman, Pertti Neumann, quite a bit when he went solo after Dingo broke up. So, performing in front of big audiences isn't anything new to these guys really.
Dingo used to be a big band back then, but as far as I know, when they made their comeback, it never reached the success of their "golden days". The band is pretty much a fish out of water nowadays, unlike the other Rock band from Pori, named Yö, which also enjoyed huge success back in the eighties and is still a pretty relevant these days.
FIRE IN THE BRAIN - REVISITED BOTH IN CANADA AND FRANCE
Luxi: Back to OZ again. You mentioned that the band will participate in France's Pyrenean Metal Warriors Open Air IV festival on September 15, 2018. The festival has a pretty old-school lineup, including Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper, Medieval Steel, Attacker, etc. Did the organizers contact you directly and offer you a slot or did it happen some other way?
Mark: They contacted us first, asking if we had any interest in playing at the festival. We said, "Yes, why not". It is an old-school Metal festival where they book older school names like the ones you mentioned and there are a few similar festivals around Europe like Sweden's Muskelrock festival. They are sort of underground festivals, targeting a certain type of old-school Metal audience.
They contacted us because of our classic second album, Fire in the Brain, which came out in 1983. It's still our strongest calling card and undoubtedly will be forever. When this album was released, people got interested in us and it opened many doors. The Fire album gave us a lot publicity and people around the world started to know who we were and where we were coming from.
They wanted us to play at Considered Dead Fest Pt. II in Québec, Canada, last September, which was a festival that featured more extreme sounding Metal bands. Anyway, the organizer behind this Pyrenean Metal Warriors festival saw us playing in Québec and he got interested in booking OZ for his festival. He gave me a call and asked if we would be interested in coming over to play at the festival. We discussed the details and eventually made a contract that was financially OK for us.
I am sure there will be a lot of people who have never seen OZ live, so it's definitely cool to be a part of that festival. As we agreed, we will do Fire in the Brain from start to finish as that's something special for the fans. Some of those fans probably weren't even born when we released the album some 35 years ago. I am glad the younger generation of metalheads has found the classic eighties era of Heavy Metal and started really digging many of the bands that made their classic Metal albums during that time. The people who come to festivals like this French one are usually very devoted to their bands, know their stuff and don't follow hype or trends.
We thought it would be cool for us to do as many of these festival gigs as possible. With a new album out, we should have gotten booked for more festival shows this summer. Some of the festivals never happened because they went bankrupt and some were hard to arrange due to absurd policies and crazy demands that organizers made. Sometimes you think you are all settled but then shit happens out of the blue.
This spring showed us the ugly face in the (rotten) music business. At times, there's no way you can cope with certain things in this rough business; money talks - bullshit walks. Sometimes it seems there's no law and people don't stick to agreements. It's a pity the business has turned this way because it kills many good things in terms of cooperation.
Luxi: We crossed this topic already, but you will play Fire in the Brain album from start to finish, which is the best known OZ album. I was wondering if you have any intentions to continue this concept a little further and do some sort tour based on the Fire album?
Mark: To be honest we haven't really been thought about it. It's true that it's been 35 years since the album was released and the organizer of P.M.W.O.A. festival was fully aware of this. He asked us if we would agree to play the whole album from start to finish. I said, "Yes, we can do that...". So far, we have played six of the eight tracks on that album live.
We were thinking that it's not an impossibility to learn those other two songs off the Fire album that we haven't played in a long, long time. If that's what the audience wants to hear, they will get it. I mean, it would have been stupid to reject opportunities like this.
It's great to play those songs but we also want to make new music with OZ. I have said this in other interviews that the Fire album has, in a way, kidnapped our band because people demand songs off that record. It's the same thing, let's say, with Black Sabbath for example; if they didn't play "Paranoid", they were considered idiots. Same with Iron Maiden; if they decided to skip "Number of the Beast", they would be stupid as well, to not play the song. The Maiden fans demand to hear it every time they attend Maiden's concerts, right? And same with Deep Purple; if they decided to skip playing "Smoke....", they would be stupid, too.
We could be considered our own "cover band" if we only concentrated on playing our old songs. I am sure some older OZ fans might even like the idea if next year we played the III Warning album only and a year from that, we could concentrate on playing OZ's fourth album, ... Decibel Storm... Well, it doesn't disturb us so much if that's all that they want to hear, that's alright, but we'll definitely keep on putting out new OZ songs in the future. I do know the band's history and am willing to discuss it with our fans if they are curious to know more about it. If they want to know what happened in the studio back in 1984 for example, I am all about telling the fans. Hell, our youngest guitarist, Johnny, wasn't even born when we recorded the III Warning album in 1984.
To make long rant a bit shorter, we'll always include some of our older songs in our set list when we play live because the fans and the band respect the history of the band, naturally with some new OZ songs.
Luxi: If we go back to your latest album, Transition State, it's been received pretty well both by the fans and media. There were, of course, a lot of concerns over the fact the band's longtime vocalist was, all of sudden, out of the band. What are your thoughts about the band's "transition state" as the album's name clearly suggests? Did it go as well as you hoped or did you have some fears as to how OZ would be accepted after that?
Mark: Well, I had the same feelings and fears with this new OZ album as I had with the band's comeback album, Burning Leather, which was released in 2011. My primary thoughts were, "Let's see how it will be accepted". Nowadays, I try not to put too much weight on my shoulders but take things as they are meant to come. Otherwise, I would lose my mind if I overthought things too much. If you expect too much about things and they are not meant to happen, you will be disappointed. You just need to be as realistic as possible and keep your feet firmly on the ground and have an open mind, whatever may come on your way.
To be honest with you, I did expect that perhaps some OZ fans would feel betrayed because Ape (De Martini) wasn't singing anymore. Fortunately, the album's been received rather well. In the worst-case scenario, every OZ fan might have spat on us, metaphorically speaking, but the album was received pretty well after all.
Our new vocalist Vince is one hell of a skilled singer and, in my opinion, he doesn't sound THAT radically from Ape. It's true that when there's a vocalist change in a band, people tend to pay a lot of attention to it. Sometimes these vocal changes can be successful, but most often they are not. Getting Vince to replace Ape, we could say we were lucky.
It's funny but our record company expected even more of a fuss when we announced the band's new vocalist. The record company told us it really didn't matter if the publicity was positive or negative because any publicity is good publicity. As long as people are talking about you, it's all good.
I was pretty confident that we would come up with some good songs for this album and it's up to the fans to decide for themselves. You be the judge, dear listener.
6 YEARS OF BEING IN A TRANSITION STATE
Luxi: Did you ever have concerns about finish this project? OZ's previous album, Burning Leather, was released in 2011, so that's a pretty long gap between your previous album and this new one...
Mark: Well, just before we went to our US tour in 2013, my mother who had been seriously sick for a long time eventually died of cancer. Her funeral was held before the US tour, so I was quite down and didn't know if I was capable of doing that tour. If that wasn't enough, Ape's mother was also seriously ill as was our tour manager's father, etc. All this made us stop to consider if we in a state to go on tour. We all live in Sweden and lots of family live in Finland, so they were pretty rough times for everyone in the band.
When we eventually decided to tour in the States, I was pretty much in a state of shock. I had just lost my mom, made all the necessary arrangements for the funeral, got her buried and stuff. It was really stressful. I was in some weird, unreal moods and feelings during the whole tour. The tour itself went OK, but after we returned home I dropped back into those weird and bad feelings. In fact, they got even worse. I mean, Ape's mother and our tour manager's father were important people for me so I spent a lot of my time to help them in every possible way. Due to these things, we decided to put the band temporarily on ice because making new music wasn't our top priority at that time. There were inheritance and law issues after my mom's death and that ate up a lot of my personal time. Going back and forth between Sweden and Finland, where she lived, made things very stressful for myself.
After we had toured the States, two of our Swedish brothers in arms, bassist Johannes and guitarist Michel, decided to leave the band and go back to the States for six months with their own band. Eventually, there were only Ape and me; all the other members had left OZ due to all these hassles. It stopped things totally. This brought even more negative clouds above our heads, which killed our motivation for a long period of time.
After a while, I started thinking, "this cannot be the end of the band". OZ was worth more than just one comeback album and it would be stupid if I didn't keep pushing forward. My son is an adult, so he can take care of his life without me babysitting him all the time. The reality is I am not young anymore; I have my job and would like to do something else in my life, not only stare at the clouds in the sky. Making music has always played an important role in my life. Making music and performing live feel good, especially when you have easy-going and gifted musicians around you. Everyone should try to play in a band at least once, just to get this special vibe. I cannot think of anything better than playing in OZ.
It's really a good coincidence that all the current members in OZ live in Pori, Finland, my old home town. It's the result of traveling to Pori so often to take care of things when my mom died. I got to know more and more people from Pori, which resulted in recruiting all these current band members for OZ from that area. For me, there's never been a rule about which country musicians for this band should be from. That I found them all in Pori allows us to gather together for rehearsals easier.
This current line-up first rehearsed around 2014-2015. The first idea was to a Swedish bassist and two Finnish guitarists. The guitarists had been actively practicing OZ songs and our original plan was to arrange the first rehearsal in Stockholm, Sweden. We had a tour in Europe coming up so it was important to rehearse a bit before hitting on the road. It all looked good on the paper.
The bassist then had seconds thoughts and said he could not come to rehearsal due to family issues. I had rented all the PA systems and stuff for this rehearsal and felt really bad that nothing ever goes as planned. I was about to lose my mind because nothing seemed to work out for OZ back in those days.
If this wasn't enough, I was told that the European tour wouldn't be happening just two days before the planned rehearsal session in Stockholm. I decided not tell the other guys that the tour had been canceled because they had bought their tickets to Stockholm already. I just let them travel to Stockholm to see what happened next. If they weren't interested in rehearsing after I gave them the news, then we could always go out and get wasted, ha!
Then I decided to tell the guys anyway, just two days before the rehearsal that we didn't have a bassist anymore. They were naturally very disappointed and started doing some brainstorming together. They suggested this young guy named Johnny, who plays all kinds of instruments from guitar to bass, etc. He joined us for the rehearsal and we were all set. At that time, we still had Ape in the ranks. We rehearsed and we all thought, "damn, we sound really good...", and it was great again to play these songs after a long while. The Swedenized line-up was history and these new Finnish lads nailed it. It felt like all the pieces had started to fall into the right places once again.
We held our first rehearsal on Friday and were planning to rehearse the next day, too. I asked Ape what a suitable time for him to come over would be and he told me that he had no time. I was close saying a couple of bad words to him but somehow managed to hold my tongue. I was like, "oh, I see...". It bugged me that he couldn't arrange things at home to rehearse with the rest of us on Friday and Saturday. It was very annoying.
Luxi: Have you started writing new songs for the band's eighth studio album?
Mark: Yes, we have some stuff ready. We wanted to make the whole Transition State album in secret to avoid any extra fuss and concentrate on doing the album as peacefully as possible.
As our plans to do the European tour had hit the rocks, I was thinking we could at least give it a try and see if we could come up with something for OZ. The guys had already composed some new stuff so we went to the studio with this new material and started working with it. We didn't know if we were just recording a demo or if we should put all our efforts in making the next OZ album. We got Vince on vocals at this time.
I realized very soon that both of our new guitarists were full of ideas and they seemed to churn out new songs all the time. I am very happy with this situation where we have two very creative and productive songwriters in the band and there's no need to push the brake pedal because they were so enthusiastic about being a part of OZ. They wrote 17-20 new songs all in all, which is incredible.
Luxi: After Transition State, or this album also included...?
Mark: After the Transition album. In other words, we have the songs for our next album already.
TRANSITION FROM AFM RECORDS TO MASSACRE RECORDS?
Luxi: Wow, it sounds like you have new material not just for one album but for the next two OZ albums...
Mark: Indeed, even for Transition State we had one extra song that was dropped from the record. We recorded 14 songs in all during the Transition recording sessions. I don't think our next album will be as long as Transition was; it was nearly one hour long, which is crazy long, even by our standards. I am glad to say we have about two hours of new OZ material ready.
I was talking with the AFM staff and they expected us to do more gigs once Transition State was out to promote the album a bit more from our part. We would have played more but things didn't turn out the way we originally hoped, which was a pity.
Anyway, I want to share a strange story with you. I went to Hamburg this Easter with a friend of mine to visit a big tattoo convention and during that trip, I wanted to drop by the office of AFM Records. We had discussions between the label and OZ. I told them all about our new material. We still had an option for one more album in our contract.
After I returned home, they gave me a call to tell me they didn't want to use that option with us. I was under the understanding after my visit to their office that they did want to do one more album with us. I don't know what happened and I don't want to make any wild guesses as to what made them change their mind all of a sudden.
Two days passed, and they called me again. The guy whom I was originally in touch with at AFM told me the boss of another German label, Massacre Records, might be interested in doing something with us. The guy from AFM told me the founding member of Massacre has always been a fan of our band. We didn't have anything to lose, so it was easy to say, "yes, please. Ask them to contact me." After some serious negotiations between Massacre and us, things went forward fast, and soon we had our names written down on the contract they offered us. At the end of the day, the transition from AFM Records to Massacre Records happened relatively smoothly. But here's a little secret; AFM Records is owned by Souldfood Music Distribution (GmbH), which is run by a guy named Joakim, who's Executive Manager of Soulfood. Soulfood also owns Massacre Records. So, in a way, we just made a transition from one sub-label to another that are both owned by Soulfood. Metaphorically speaking, in the same house one door was closed while the other one was open. I don't see this necessarily any bad thing for us and time will tell how our "old-new" home will welcome us.
I think we have an even a better deal with Massacre than we had with AFM, which is, of course, nice. I don't have anything bad to say about AFM. We made a couple of albums for them and I believe we will continue cooperation in the future, at least on some level. I mean, it's all about being a part of one big family. I did some background research about Massacre Records and learned things about the label's history, bands and previous releases and stuff. I had to think of different things with a wider scope before closing the deal with them, like what we wanted and needed from Massacre and how we could work with them as a band so that both parties would be happy. I need to get to know the people on the Massacre staff better because they are completely new for me personally. And vice versa, of course, because they hardly know me either. I am confident that we can get a fruitful cooperation going between us.
The deal with them is worldwide, as it was with AFM, so they will take care of that part. Our albums will be available everywhere on this globe. The worldwide distributor is Soulfood.
It did take some time to move from AFM to Massacre due to all the paperwork and stuff. It was all worth it because it motivated us to keep working on our new songs. The deal with Massacre made it all possible for us, of course. We will put away this show here at Porispere first, and then do the show in France - and after that, we will fully concentrate on our next album. We won't accept any new gig offers for the time being at least. It would be ideal if we got it done by the end of this year. The new label naturally expects a new album as soon as possible because they obviously want to get the wheels rollin'. If we hesitate too much, it would make things a bit more difficult regarding gigs next summer. Both parties are enthusiastic about this cooperation. Anyway, making the next OZ is our first priority at the moment.
Working with completely different people may be challenging at times because of a language barrier. I remember when I called the boss behind Massacre Records, who lives in the southern part of Germany. I had a hard time understanding him at first due to his strong German accent in his spoken English. Fortunately, I lived in that area for a couple of years, so I was able to understand him after a bit.
Luxi: As an awkward transition from one topic to another, how much have you planned for next year already?
Mark: Well, we should hit the studio by the end of this year so that we can get a new album out in early spring 2019. Like I mentioned previously, it's way easier to get gig opportunities when you have new material out. Our working methods will hardly change; we'll record a new album, make some (lyric) videos, do interviews for media and stuff, all the same things that we have done thus far. It's important for us to get more gigs booked, which at times seems to be rather difficult because we don't play mainstream or radio-friendly music.
We have a steady line-up in OZ now. Everyone knows his place as a part of OZ, and we are much more experienced and tighter as a unit than we were when we were working with the previous record, Transition.
Luxi: Obviously the making of Transition was an important learning process for how to work together an getting to know your individual working methods?
Mark: Yes, that's true. I am sure we have tackled that already, so things should definitely be easier for us doing our next album.
Besides this next OZ album, our next clear goal is playing as many gigs as possible in 2019. I don't know if we'll want to play in the States because there's always lots of extra work to get there; lots of unnecessary bureaucracy, horrible distances between different cities and shit. But we'll see... never say die.
Our main marketing area is Central Europe. Germany, Spain, France, etc. due to the popularity of this type of music that we do with OZ. We want to get more gigs booked in the Central European area next year, most definitely. Hopefully, some of these plans will pan out for us.
CHANCES OF GETTING OZ'S BACK CATALOG RE-RELEASED - POSSIBILITY OR IMPOSSIBILITY?
Luxi: Yes, let's hope so. If you have anything else on your mind that you'd like to add to this conversation, be my guest...
Mark: First off, let me just say that I am happy that we got Transition State released despite the many setbacks. I am also happy that we have such a pro team working for the band now. It's early but I can almost bet that our next album will be even better than Transition. My gut feeling is that we'll take another step forward as far as our new material is concerned. I would think it is a good feeling for these new OZ members to be aware of the fact they will be a part of OZ's next album versus thinking, "Hey, we did the Transition album together. How cool is that?", and then OZ ceased to exist.
We have pre-planned things far into the future and I cannot stress enough how crucial it is for us to get this next album done. The sooner we get it released, the better. I know Massacre Records will expect us to answer all kinds of interviews for the next two months or so, which is understandable. The promotion for this next OZ album should be done as properly as possible because the label also wants to get money back that they have invested in us. Fortunately, they have a pro team in the Massacre office that will set up most of these interviews and stuff, but we still need to do our own part.
I have been managing OZ for years basically, so I will be careful whom I would like to work with. If you put your name down on some weird contract, without knowing who the people are, you'll be screwed. The music business is a cruel place, run by assholes that want to make a quick profit. Many people have asked me why I cannot get OZ's back catalogue re-released. I would love to, but unfortunately, Black Mark Productions owns the rights. It doesn't help our situation that both Stig Börje Forsberg (aka Boss Forsberg) and Thomas Börje Forsberg (aka Quorthon) are dead now. Börje's wife and heirs collectively own everything on Black Mark. I was thinking a long time ago that I should sit at the table with Börje and discuss all this stuff, but I was too late with my plans because he sadly passed way in 2017. We'll see if this can somehow be worked out because it would be nice for OZ fans to get some of our old out-of-print albums released again.
Back in the eighties, many bands made bad contracts with record companies because they were so young and naive, including us. That's why I am much more careful now when it all comes down to putting my name on a contract. I don't want to repeat my past mistakes ever again, that's for sure. It's like getting yourself crucified with no chance to get away from that bad situation. When we signed our deal with Black Mark Productions, we didn't read the contract too carefully. They may even own the copyrights for our past albums for 25 years or so, who knows?
If that wasn't all, they also have our original master/DAT tapes of old albums in their possession, IF they still have them. I have no idea. If they are lost, then we can surely bury all these plans for good about getting old OZ albums re-released someday.
|Other information about OZ on this site|
|Review: Burning Leather|
|Review: Burning Leather|
|Review: Transition State|
|Review: Transition State|
|Review: Fire in the Brain|
|Interview with Mark Ruffneck (drums) on October 2, 2011 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with vocalist Ape De Martini and drummer Mark Ruffneck on September 19, 2012 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with drummer Mark Ruffneck on January 17, 2014 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with vocalist Ape De Martini, guitarists Juzzy and Johnny, bassist Peppi and drummer Mark Ruffneck on March 26, 2016 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with drummer Mark Ruffneck on December 13, 2017 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Video: Hey You|
|Video: Burning Leather (Live)|
|Video: Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (Live)|
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