Interview with guitarist Robbie Woning
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: November 29, 2021
Dutch death/thrash metal division Dead Head has been keeping their war machines rolling since they formed in 1989, releasing six full-length albums and a good number of other releases in that time. The band’s previous album, Swine Plague, came out on Hammerheart Records in 2017 and they are currently waiting for their seventh album to see the light of day in the coming months. It’s titled Slave Driver and has Dead Head’s distinctive old school death/thrash sound.
We contacted guitarist Robbie Woning a while back to ask about their forthcoming album and Dutch metal documentary, heroes of the new metal generation, plans for the future and many other things.
How are things in the land of tulips and clogs during these tough Covid-19 times?
Robbie: Actually, I live in a part of Holland with many tulips. It’s really the farming region.
These days stuff is getting back to normal. Smaller festivals are happening again. People are happy, of course, but you never know how long it will last before stuff is shut down again. I’m kind of jealous of America where tours have really started happening again. But then again, we’ve seen a rise in Covid cases already. I’m convinced this fucker virus will remain a disrupting factor for many more years.
*FAST AND AGGRESSIVE THRASH METAL COMING UP
You guys were working at the ToneShed Recording Studio in Horst on your next studio album since January 2021. What can you share about this new material, like how it compares to your previous album, Swine Plague?
Robbie: It will be yet another fast and aggressive thrash album. Well, maybe with some more variation this time.
I have the impression we finally learned how to write a proper song. It only took 30+ years... haha!
Some of the material we did in the past was sometimes more like a bunch if riffs thrown together. That can be great, but this time we gave it a bit more thought. Mind you, we take forever to make an album and the songs that are going to be on it are usually like version number 5, with all kinds of riffs thrown away. Our other guitar player Ronnie is notorious for writing great riffs, then getting bored with them and throwing them away. I sometime recycle them later.
We started recording in January 2021 and, like true attention whores, we put photos on Facebook straight away. It is really not that smart because it immediately makes people take notice. Next, we found ourselves fixing mistakes, recording addition parts, leads, vocals. That stuff takes a lot of time, but most people thought the album was going to be out by March. In reality the mix was finished in August. And, of course, this was mix attempt number 16 or so. I’d hate to be a Dead Head fan and have to wait forever for a new album.
We did record it at Erwin Hermsen’s studio, who also mixed Swine Plague for us. He’s a very good mixer and we think he’s also very capable at capturing and controlling our crazy fast music.
*MUSIC BY DEAD HEAD
Were songwriting responsibilities any different on this new album compared to Swine Plague?
Robbie: We usually just put "music by Dead Head" on the album to avoid all that ego stuff. On the previous album Ronnie wrote a bit more, this time I supplied more riffs, I think.
Like with most bands, it’s usually a guitar player that starts a new song. However, the influence of our drummer Hans is very prominent. He changes riffs but also the approach of a riff, structures and different speeds. Sometimes he changes the entire concept so it’s really a mutual effort.
This new album will have 12 new songs according to your official Facebook page. Did you record any extra songs, like bonus tracks for a possible Japanese edition of the album?
Robbie: Well, being an ambitious idiot, I wanted to break the usual Dead Head cycle of making an album every 4-5 years. I thought, "Once we have those drums all mixed up in the studio, why not record 20 songs instead of 10?" Just the basis of 20 songs and for the first release use like 10. Like Use Your Illusions, Part I and II, you know. It would have been possible. We did have structures of about 20 songs ready, but some were more ready than others. Some were better than others, so we decided to record only 12.
It turns out you can really only put 10 songs on a vinyl LP before the sound quality diminishes, so we now have 10 songs that will be on the album and two others completely finished left over that are not on the album. There’s also a cool semi-acoustic song left over that we did, with some Mike Oldfield atmosphere.
Those three will be on an EP that we will record later this year. We already have one additional song written for that EP. So, just two more to finish and back to the studio.
What can you tell us about the cover art (I haven’t seen a photo yet) and the artist behind it?
Robbie: The album cover is really cool. It was made by an artist named Vladimir Chebakov.
Currently the album is at the pressing plant but there’s no news for the release date yet. Do you have a rough estimate of when the fans can expect to hold a physical copy of the album in their hands?
Robbie: That’s a bit difficult for us. Being on a label with proper distribution, now also expanded into the US, means that they need time to properly distribute and market it. And from what I understood, there’s a long queue at the LP pressing plant. So, it might take a few more months before stuff is ready.
Can you reveal the album title yet?
Robbie: The album will be called Slave Driver.
I read that you may shoot a video for promotional purposes. How far along are you with those plans?
Robbie: Well, we did, and the result turned out very professional and intense. I can’t wait for it to be released. It will be for the opening song off the album and just shows us performing as a band. No fairy tales or story lines with actors like some bands do.
Talking about audiovisual stuff, there’s a documentary about the Dutch extreme metal scene in the works, as an Indiegogo project. What will Dead Head’s role be in this documentary?
Robbie: Yup. Guys called Mike Redman and Jason Kohnen are making that documentary. I was among the earlier guys to be interviewed, but the makers are so fanatical and determined to cover it all and not let anything out, that they are still interviewing and filming. I think it will be a great product. But it’s maybe no longer just about extreme metal, but the origins of Dutch metal as well.
*THE NETHERLANDS METAL SCENE – PAST AND PRESENT
The Netherlands has had a strong and vivid underground scene for decades. How do you see the current state of it compared to when Dead Head started out back in 1989? Does it still feel as exciting and "fresh" as 30 years ago?
Robbie: Difficult question. Like in any country, it was probably fresher in the early nineties. It was new and adventurous, with the whole tape-trading thing, no Internet, but corresponding with people in countries far away. Driving hundreds of kilometers to play some small club with fanatical metalheads. These days there are a million bands one click away on YouTube scattered all over the planet and I can chat instantly with people in China, Japan, Brazil and the South Pole at the same time. This somehow makes it less special.
In the early days, there were a lot of young and promising bands in the Netherlands and a lot of healthy competition. I think the bands really got better by watching other bands and trying to be better than each other.
The metal scene has changed a lot for the worse, I think. These days there are a lot of, in my eyes, mainstream bands with a metal image and it’s more about image, concepts, and gimmicks. Plus, all that female singer crap with keyboards.
I still come from this underground background. You know working-class musicians gradually making a name for ourselves, following a certain path and not wandering off. But maybe we’re just old-fashioned.
Has your viewpoint changed over the years as to what’s really extreme metal and what’s not? What we so-called old-timers considered extreme metal a couple of decades ago may well be something completely different from how today’s metalheads see it with bands like Slipknot, Bring Me the Horizon, Five Finger Death Punch, etc., being some of the big names in the world of extreme metal.
Robbie: It’s all down to taste. And every generation has different heroes. Every metal fan has different bands they grow up with and that will always have that special extra factor. Bring Me the Horizon and Five Finger Death Punch are good bands, but not my taste. Slipknot is a cooler band. I spent time with them in Japan when I wrote for a metal magazine. Drummer Joey was constantly listening to Celtic Frost and the guitar players were checking out a bunch of Shrapnel guitar shredders and trying to play that kind of stuff. They were real metal fans and music fans that somehow found this new formula that became very successful. Plus, Slipknot were very loud and aggressive back in the day.
But do I ever still listen to them? No. I only listen to Priest, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Deeds of Flesh and Cannibal Corpse.
*SWEET BLOODY VIRUS
How has Covid-19 have an effect on Dead Head’s comings and goings?
Robbie: It has not affected us much. We were about done promoting Swine Plague when it started and have been mostly writing and recording during the lockdown. It must have been worse for the bands who released an album the week before the first lockdown. I know a few examples like that. Bands got great reviews but couldn’t do anything to promote their albums. Those same bands are still on the bill of festivals that have been postponed for at least two years. I mean, those shows will eventually happen but the momentum for the album has died.
I think the bands that used the pandemic to write and record songs have been luckier.
As it’s been a very brutal time to make plans for playing in front of a real audience, did you guys ever consider doing a live stream like many other bands did?
Robbie: No, even though we really enjoyed some of the YouTube videos that other bands did. Some unusual stuff by well-known bands as well as creative stuff by unknown bands. But I personally do not like to perform songs outside of the typical stage setting. We don’t do unplugged/living room/bar/garden shows in general. So, no streams or bedroom sessions from us. Sorry...
Do you miss both playing live and seeing other bands playing live?
Robbie: Of course! I don’t miss the big/huge festivals, but I’m glad club shows are coming back.
I have to believe you have sat down with the other fellows in the band to plan what you would like to do in 2022 when you have your new album out. Can you reveal any of these plans?
Robbie: No. And I’m assuming it’s going to be hard.
It’s weird how festivals are now happening two years later than planned, with the exact original bill from the postponed original date.
Of course, this is all down to money. No concert promoter is going to cancel an already booked band, because it will cost them money. It will be a bit harder to book shows, but we do have some places that we usually play and those gigs will surely happen.
Has Covid-19 closed down any venues in Overijssel?
Robbie: Well, everything closed down. And the uncertainty about the future still limits the ideas and billing for festivals. US bands have a hard time coming over. So, in a way, European bands are able to play a bit more maybe. But it’s all still happening on a smaller scale than before.
How far in the future of the band do you think? Do you prefer short-term plans instead of long-term commitments because you are not in your twenties anymore?
Robbie: Like I said before, we’d really like to speed up the schedule of releasing one album every 4-5 years. I have ideas for six more albums. But at the current pace, we will be 70 by then. Something needs to happen.
Can you name a thing or two that make you proud of this band?
Robbie: Well, firstly, the fact that we’ve been playing together since 1989 and are still doing the same stubborn fast thrash metal is kind of cool. Also, I would like to think that there are not too many bands doing the musical style that we play. I mean, most thrash bands usually play 20 to 30 seconds of fast stuff at the beginning of a song and then turn to some comfortable mid-tempo pacing until maybe the solo. We usually do it the other way around. I have too much Dark Angel/Sadus/Possessed in my veins to play mid-tempo all the time.
Another thing that comes to mind is that I’ve been playing with our drummer Hans and our other guitar player Ronnie for 30 years. We did change singers a few times, but the core of the band has been together for a long time. That doesn’t happen too often. So that’s cool as well and maybe explains why we’re still doing this old school thrash thing.
That was all I had in my mind for this conversation, so thank you for your time to make this happen and I also want to wish you all the best both with the band and in your life outside the band. If you have any closing comments to wrap up this conversation, be my guest...
Robbie: I just want to thank you for the interview opportunity and thank all the people who ever checked out our band. Even if they hated us afterwards. We’re just doing our thing. And will keep doing so.
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