Virgin Steele

Interview ...

3 January 2001

BY THE GODS! Through cyberspace and over transatlantic telephone lines we meet again! How are you, David? Have you stopped counting the interviews that you gave during the last couple of days / weeks?

Iīm okay. Yes, itīs been many, but itīs been good.

Again no Frank Frazetta cover paintings for the albums... This is a pity. Naw, Iīm just kidding. Well, but frankly, the cover design is really doing justice to the progressive elements of the epic compositions. No place for nostalgic artwork. But tell me, whoīs this guy on the cover of "HYMNS TO VICTORY"? He looks like Apollon, who must be one of your favourites from Olympus...

Yes, that is Apollo, whom the Germans call Apollon, you are correct. Apollo is an interesting character because he is a god with two aspects. One is the musical, heīs got the lyre or the harp in his hands. The other, he is the archer of the gods . Heīs a god of war as well as a god that likes music and beautiful things. Heīs got the bloodstained barbaric nature and heīs got the romantic nature as well. So I think he embodies the spirit of the barbaric romantic ideology quite well. Thatīs why he was chosen.

How do you feel, now that two new CDs are about to be released in a couple of days? Are you satisfied with the finished work (I hope so, because I am!) or would you have changed minor things?

I am as satisfied as I ever am with the recording. Thereīs always a point at the end of the record Iīm always like 'I need another week, I need another hour, I need another month' - whatever. You know I wanna spend more time with them. Thereīs always something I want to change or make better. But then I move away from it. And then itīs okay, Iīm like 'It is what it is' and Iīm happy with it and I listen to it and just enjoy it.

I would say that probably out of any the records that I have done and completed in this manner, I think I was the least stressed out about letting go of these records. I was thinking 'Yeah, itīs okay, itīs as good as I can get it under these conditions, so let it be done. I can walk away from it'. Which I was a little worried about, because most of the time Iīm always stressing and wanting to go back to remaster and change things. I did not really have too much of that feeling this time. Probably because I did have enough time to actually devote to it in the first place. So I didnīt have to agonize so much at the end of the day. Iīm pretty satisfied, to answer your question ;-)

"HYMNS TO VICTORY" is an anthology of VIRGIN STEELE albums spanning the period from "NOBLE SAVAGE" (1985) to "THE HOUSE OF ATREUS - ACT II" (2000). But I miss material from "LIFE AMONG THE RUINS" on it. There was a voting by the fans for the tracklist at the record companyīs website. Did so few people vote for tracks from that album?

Yeah, that album!!! I was going to put some stuff on there. I was going to put on "I dress in black", "Crown of thorns" or "Jet black". But to the question again, if the record was a double album I probably would have put something from there on, of course.

I like that record a great deal. There was a voting. (I would say,) I donīt know where the people came from who voted, but I would say that record is not a big favorite in Germany. But in places like Scandinavia, Italy, Spain and other countries, people like it very much, so I donīt think that Germany is indicative of everyone's feelings of that record, because a lot of people in other countries do really like that record.

Itīs weird, that some records take off in certain places. (I guess the mentality or the expectations of the people.) You know, I think most people in Germany were expecting "NOBLE SAVAGE - PART FIVE" or something like that. Most people turned on to VIRGIN STEELE with that album - but you know we did make new fans out of that "RUINS" album! - Some folks really like that record, whether theyīre from Germany or where ever theyīre from. But people who were expecting a "Noble savage" or "Burning of Rome" were disappointed for some reason.

For me, I never expect anything from a band I enjoy. I expect a band to do what they wanna do and I just take each album for what it is and not expect someone to repeat what theyīve done before. That kind of mentality spices the scene a little bit! To think that they can change and they can grow!

A lot of bands keep making the same record over and over again. Iīm not gonna be pigeonholed in any shape or form. I do what I like to do and that record was product of its time. Those were the songs at the moment and it wasnīt even supposed to really be a record. It just happened that we recorded a bunch of tracks. I sent some stuff around and I got a deal. And there it was, thatīs the record. A typical picture of life at that time.

Thirteen tracks picked from the recordings of seven albums, the album kicks off with a track from the brilliant epic "THE HOUSE OF ATREUS". But the main emphasis - if thereīs really one - with three tracks lies on the album "THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL - PART II" (1996). My interpretation or your intention?

Probably both. Yeah, it is a little heavy in the representation of the second one. But for some reason that particular record has definitely struck a heavy chord for a lot of people. I think itīs a really strong record. Also there were songs on that record that I thought I could fool with a little bit and make sound better. Thatīs why Iīd chosen them. However, I was a little concerned that itīs so heavily weighted in that record. But at the end of the day I said 'What are we gonna do now? Pull off something else and do something else?' It was too late in the game to re-think at that point, and I just went with what I had, so there it is.

I discovered the band through a Heavy Metal encyclopedia which listed "NOBLE SAVAGE" as a heavy metal classic. Soon on this I started to search for that album on record fairs and in second hand stores. It was shortly before "THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL -PART I" (1995) was being released, when I found a copy of the album. Later I finally found the first two albums too. But it wasnīt easy for those two vinyls to win my liking since "NOBLE SAVAGE" was written, performed and produced on a much higher level than the bandīs debut and "GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME" (1983). So - to me - "NOBLE SAVAGE" marks the actual beginning of what VIRGIN STEELE is known for these days. Looking back now I would call "LIFE AMONG THE RUINS" (1993) a first sign of life after a period of five years and sort of a 'prelude' to the bandīs second coming. Do you agree with me?

I think "NOBLE SAVAGE" was really the first proper album and I think of that as the first album. The first two records were really just sketches, if you will. If I have to use an analogy, thatīs the "Mona Lisa" and the first two records are fingerpaintings, you know. (laughs) A big difference.

Yeah, then of course we did our thing and we got to a certain level. And we had a few problems between "AGE OF CONSENT" and "LIFE AMONG THE RUINS". It wasnīt really five years. We werenīt absent for five years. It seems like that if it comes to a recorded output. But even that wasnīt really five years, īcause "AGE OF CONSENT" came out in 1988 and "LIFE AMONG THE RUINS" was begun in like ī92, I think we were recording stuff. Released in late ī92 or early ī93, it wasnīt quite so long.

But we werenīt inactive!!!!!!! We were doing gigs, we were playing live, we were doing shows and writing material obviously. And I was also studying a great deal, I went back to University. I wanted to stay doing music and stay doing VIRGIN STEELE and I just wanted to kind of go back to the well, so to speak, the well of knowledge and immerse myself in musical culture. So I got my Bachelorsīs Degree in harmony/theory and composition and such. That was a really good time for me. We never stopped, just kind of eased off a little bit, so we had room to grow. Youīve gotta like let the ground lie fallow for awhile for the new shoots to grow up, the new crops to grow.

The 'second coming' - ah, I think we kicked it off with "LIFE AMONG THE RUINS" as you mentioned and then "MARRIAGE... - I" put us really totally back on the map.

From "THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL -PART I" on you use to release one album a year! If they were all released on vinyl they would have been double albums! Plus, according to a guy from Noise records, your record company, you use to write enough songs to record at least two albums a year!! Whatīs your magic(k) fountain of inspiration?

Ah - life, man! Experience. I dig living. I live each day, Iīm aware each day. Iīm very much awake and in the moment. And I experience, I observe and I participate and I think about all these things and it comes out in song form. When I work, I work in a very focused manner. And for however long I work for, itīs really concentrated and itīs very productive always. Thereīs always songs coming. I donīt believe in hiding them away, holding them for a later date. Iīm like 'Iīm here now, letīs get it going, letīs do it now!', you know, Iīm always gonna write songs, so Iīm not afraid to bring a lot of music forth on one record. Some bands hold everything, theyīre like 'Letīs hold it back for the next record'. Maybe they think they wonīt write so much, or what ever. But I never think like that. I think, Iīm gonna always write songs. Not a problem. Iīm always gonna have ideas, Iīm always thinking about music. Iīm totally immersed in sounds, in lyrics, in everything. So, itīs really just sitting down and finding the time to actually do it, and making an output of more stuff, comes pretty easily.

According to the liner notes there are re-mastered versions and alternate mixes on the album. Tell me the difference between these things/technologies.

Well, 'remastered' is just taking the initial two-track stereo mix and putting it through various mastering pieces of equipment, which - to put it in very simple terms - is like going through your stereo and boosting the treble or the bass or the mid-range frequencies. So, by altering the equalization curve you can bring out certain instruments, certain things, that lie within their frequency. You can bring up the snare-drum or you can bring up the guitar. Itīs not like mixing. Re-mixing is taking the actual multi-track, and then you have all the faders up on the board and all the tracks 'here is the guitar, here is the drum-kit, here is the vocal' and you can actually physically bring things up or bring things down, add effects to things or whatever.

Remastering has a limit to what you can do, because the thing is, all the various multi tracks have already been mixed down to two tracks, you know, so thereīs only so much you can actually do with two tracks. But you still can do quite a bit, depending on if you actually only have a two-track stereo mix. Sometimes when Iīm mixing, I often mix down to more than the two track stereo mix. Sometimes I have brought in an extra snare-drum or kick-drum or a guitar or whatever. So Iīd have a few other tracks to play with on top of that. And when youīre remastering, then you can also adjust further levels or things like that along the way, too. So it can get kind of complicated. But in most of the cases it was the case of Iīd have just the two-track stereo mix and Iīm remastering it with some very nice pieces of gear that can bring out greater fidelity or punch, you know, bottom, mid-range or top-end, overall sonic punch and leveling, you can get the thing hotter, so it comes off the CD in a much louder level. It can cause a great deal of distortion when you go too loud, you know. But there is a lot that you can do with that.

Mixing is a whole other thing. You can completely change the whole dynamic of a performance by masking things, burying some things, bringing other things up. The result can be completely different. The drum sound can be completely different. You can change it īcause you have different reverbs, different EQs on each separate instrument and different effects on each separate instruments: reverb, delay, chorus or whatever.

The 'Long lost early mix' of "Noble savage" that now appears on "HYMNS TO VICTORY" - I canīt hear a big difference to the original version, it just sounds clearer and more brilliant...

Itīs clearer, yeah. Itīs basically why I chose it. What happened was the album "NOBLE SAVAGE" was made and was mixed down to 1/2 inch analogue tape, as we do. And then it was taken up to a mastering lab in Canada and was mastered and cut to the original vinyl that we made back then, and then later on it was made into C.D. from, I guess, the original/the same master tapes, master mixes that we used. But somewhere along the way the actual two-track mixes that is, some of them disappeared. They must have been lost up in Canada, or whatever happened, I donīt know exactly what happened.

I still had the multi-track and everything else, but some of them disappeared. In searching for other things I came across this 1/2 inch mix of "NOBLE SAVAGE" which I even wasnīt sure or didnīt even remember that I had.

We were doing a mix one day and then went home. Basically, you leave the board set up you come back the next day and make a few adjustments and then youīre done. So that mix was from the previous evening. And, it is pretty much the same in terms of the actual mix.

But, the difference was, when I wanted to remaster the re-issue of "NOBLE SAVAGE" for the C.D. when we re-issued it, because some of the original mixes had disappeared, I had to take that particular track from another source. So, mastering or remastering something from something thatīs already been somewhat mastered and thatīs not from the first generation original sound source is going to have some type of generation loss in quality. So, this version is from the original master mix.

I couldn't believe it, it is so fresh, so powerful! Youīre not gonna hear that it is a different animal, īcause itīs made basically with the same ear, we were going for the same type of mix. Everything was based on the complete original setup. It has slightly different things, very subtle kinds of things. But what we have now, is, the overall power and sonic quality is much better than what was actually presented on the "NOBLE SAVAGE" mix. So thatīs why I chose to use that one rather than the other mix I possess.

There are two songs on "HYMNS TO VICTORY" which are quite different to the rest of the tracks: "Saturday night" (and "Hot and wild" from "THE BOOK OF BURNING" too) must have been recorded during the "NOBLE SAVAGE"/"AGE OF CONSENT" era and captures that "Party Metal" feeling from that time, i.e., from the mid- and late eighties. An amazing time for the band?

Yeah, that was definitely the party side of the band, and we were interested in celebrating some of what we did every night. Saturday night was pretty much every night for us at that point in time. Just fun and another side of the coin.

They could have been on "NOBLE SAVAGE", but "NOBLE SAVAGE" was vinyl originally, so it wouldnīt fit. I was not quite sure about them. They were never quite complete in my mind and they were not quite as complete as they are now. So they needed some further tweaking. They sat in the vaults for a long time.

Now Iīve dusted them off, done a few things with them and brought them to life. I had a rough mix originally. I think itīs far better now. I changed quite a few things, changed the drum track, bass was changed, but basically the drum track was changed. More or less, itīs the same guitar and vocal. "Saturday night" - similar situation, I think. We re-cut the bass and remixed it.The chorus, oh I think I added some vocal harmonies to that one. Yeah, Iīm pretty pleased with them, they have a good energy and I like that other side of the rainbow, so to speak.

But they sound different to the rest of the material...

I could get away with something like that in this kind of a collection thing. It wouldnīt make sense putting "Saturday night" or "Hot and wild" on, you know, "THE HOUSE OF ATREUS" or "INVICTUS". (laughs)

The other "different" track to me is "The mists of Avalon". I havenīt been listening to anything similar to this song by VIRGIN STEELE before. Iīve got a feeling that people still can expect the unexpected from VIRGIN STEELE in the future. Though there might be many demanding another "Invictus" or "Noble savage", you will keep from repeating yourself, wonīt you?

Yes, youīre correct. I think itīs best to expect the unexpected. There may be things that will be stylistically similar to "INVICTUS" or something like that now and again. But I prefer to constantly try to grow and bring new things in. That was just another sort of avenue to pursue. And I always like that there will be several different avenues and unexpected things on every album that we do and thatīs a path that we intend to keep, you know, on every record. If itīs in our power that do so, we will do it, sure.

Whatīs the point, of repeating something, of going ahead and saying to myself, "Ahhhh, I need another "Sword of the gods" on the next record!" Am I going to write a better "Sword of the gods"??? It has already been written!!! I might write something in that style, but I donīt try to repeat myself.

"Mists of Avalon" was a fun thing. Itīs a different kind of tuning. Itīs more like a sort of Jimmy Page / Pete Townshend kind of tuning that Ed was fooling around with, when we were in some basement one evening, and we wrote that. It just came out. Then we recorded it in much the same way that we come up with it. We were just in the studio one evening. I think we had been doing some of the bonus tracks that appear on "AGE OF CONSENT". We had done like ahhhh..."Perfect mansions". And it was getting late in the evening and we wanted to try that one. I cut the vocal and he did the guitar at the same time. Itīs just the mood in the air that evening. The only thing I did later to it was add some bells to it, and mix it. It stands as it was.

"Emalaith" is the concluding track to "HYMNS TO VICTORY". This song is a part of VIRGIN STEELEīs live shows, it was a part of the acoustic live sets in Munich 2000 and you use to choose it to be aired everytime youīre invited to radio stations. Has "Emalaith" a special meaning for you?

Iīm really proud of the song, having written it. Having written a song of that kind of power and scope, that just drags you along from beginning to end. I like the way it came out. Itīs one of those songs that I would love to go back into the studio and mix again (laughs)! I still think 'I could have made this, I could have done this, I could have done that'. But overall I think itīs a powerful piece. I think it contains some of Frank Gilchriest's best drumming. I really like how he plays on that track. Itīs really free, itīs one of the first things we recorded together with him, when he joined the band. Yeah, we recorded that one, ah, "Crown of glory" was actually the first one he ever recorded with us. But then in the same period we did "Emalaith" and "Prometheus the fallen one", I think, all in the same day, same session.

Yeah, I think it just stands up quite well that track. Itīs a big epic thing that goes out there. Itīs one of the songs that I sometimes put on and I actually listen to all the way through, ah, really focusing on it. I donīt wanna hear any thing else after that, it's like 'Thatīs it, Iīm done'. I can't hear anything else for now. (laughs) Thatīs one of those things.

I like the drumming on "Crown of glory" very much...

Frank was just a 'ball of fire'. He came in, he just wanted to prove to us that he was the most incredible drummer that we could ever possibly encounter and he just really wanted to ingratiate himself into the band and just do a really good job. So he went all balls out. It was amazing, stuff would be flying off the walls. There was like, you know, they had these gold records or pictures on the walls in the studio and they all came crashing down, pictures and stuff falling off the walls. It was wonderful! (laughs)

Your record company made it possible for the fans to give both albums a listen before they are being released. What Iīve heard and read so far, especially "THE BOOK OF BURNING" really rocks. I can confirm this, since the advance copy has occupied my CD-player and keeps spinning around the clock!

If Iīd put myself in the shoes of someone who hasnīt been listening to "VIRGIN STEELE - I" and "GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME" before, I would say "THE BOOK OF BURNING" is a completely new written/composed album. Apart from the fact, that "Hot and wild" - as mentioned above - sounds typical "80ies", the album doesnīt give an impression of being a "compilation". Old and new material are really molded together.

That was the intention: to make a seamless record. These records were recorded/approached with all the experience we have gained from doing all the other records weīve done. It was 'Letīs try to make a really spontaneous focused, well recorded live-record' with an honest live-in-the-studio kind of feel. Thatīs what we went for on both tracks old and new, and I tried to make it as seamless as possible. So it wouldnīt be a hodge-podge of 'this track from here and that track from there' and that kind of thing.

"I ask the gods some respite from the weariness

of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake..."

thatīs how the original Greek tragedy "AGAMEMNON" begins. Was "Conjuration of the watcher" originally planned to be the opening track on "THE HOUSE OF ATREUS - ACT I"?

No. It was from that time period, but it was gonna be, hmmmmm, Iīm not sure what it was gonna be. Lyrically it really did not make sense to the story-line. It was its own sort of thing. Maybe it was going to be a bonus-track somewhere, it possibly was going to be a bonus-track on "ATREUS" or whatever.

We had more than enough material that needed to be completed at that point in time. So itīs kind of been waiting there. Itīs a fun thing that we actually used to play live in its much rawer form, around the "NOBLE SAVAGE" time. Yeah, I always liked singing that one and then I re-wrote the middle section, and Ed added one or two things so we said 'Okay, letīs record it now'.

The re-recorded version of "Children of the storm" kicks really ass! I must confess, I love this one. The original recording was good, yet this new one sounds even better! Itīs the only track you picked from the debut album, which was the first album ever released on the MUSIC FOR NATIONS label. Bands like Anthrax, Manowar, Megadeth, Metallica or W.A.S.P. would follow.

In consideration of all the metal subgenres of these days and looking back to 1982/1983 - did you feel like pioneers of heavy metal then? I mean, metal in the United States had just started round that time.

Yeah, I think we did. I think we did feel like we were part of a new movement. The world was young and the world was new. And we were definitely arrogant (laughs) and eager to ride the winds of that kind of thing. Those early recordings were done in less than a week. The whole record didnīt take much time. It is really raw and there was not much in the way of any kind of budget. But it was what it was. I was happy to take the opportunity and re-work it and make it new again. I was never all that crazy about some of the recordings on the first record at all. And I think itīs definitely a thousand times better than what happened on the first record.

Your voice used to be the only one to be heard on all the past recordings. So tell me, to whom belong these mighty female and male opera singerīs voices we can hear at the beginning of "The chosen ones"?!

Ah yes, itīs been a policy for VIRGIN STEELE to not really have outsiders especially in the vocal department. Thatīs the first time - it was about 20 seconds of, or whatever, 20-30 seconds - of some other people singing with me. Itīs the first time itīs ever happened on a VIRGIN STEELE record. Itīs a miracle (laughs).

The female voices are my two sisters: Doreen DeFeis - the opera voice -, and the other voice is my rock singer sister Danae DeFeis. And, Jim Hooper - heīs the fiancé of my sister Doreen -, thatīs the baritone opera voice you hear there.

So there are three voices...

Yeah, actually all four of us were singing there. Itīs those three people and me.

That sounds really great, but itīs way too short...

(laughs) Yeah, well maybe we'll do some more of that in the future now that we've found that we can actually do it. Itīwill be something to explore in the future.

Talking about voices, teach me otherwise, but did you use original vocal tracks on some of the recordings. "I am the one", for example, sounds like this.

No, that was all re-done, yeah. I couldnīt be in the same space, I didnīt want to use any of those things. It was all re-cut.

When did you finish recording the album? Was it after September 11th? I mean, you havenīt written lyrics like "The final days" before.

If this was the case, then I find it astonishing how you transformed your emotions caused by this sad incident into creativity. Thereīs a lot of anger in this song.

Thereīs a lot of anger in the song, yeah. But that was written prior to September 11th. A couple of words were changed on the new recordings. It was actually written in 1997 by myself and Jack, the lyrics on that one. No, it had nothing to do with September 11th. It was just a general state of the world at that point in time. We had this plane go down, this TWA flight 400, that was blown out of the sky off the coast of Long Island, that came down in a place called CENTER MORICHES, which is not far from where I live, itīs further east from me. So that's what the references were.To that incident, and various other things happenings. The ills of society. There is a lot of shit going on, yeah.

"...Blown up airlines in the sky..." - that was talking about this flight TWA flight 800 that had gone down of the coast of Long Island. It was like 'Is it a fuel tank?' or 'Itīs a rocket, an accident from our military in the woods' or some such story was. I don't think we really got a clear answer. They say itīs a fuel tank thing, but some people claim they saw a rocket streaking into the plane. Itīs one of those conspiracies.

I find it ingenious that you put this great acoustic version of "A cry in the night" (which is my favorite from the original "GUARDIANS OF THE FLAME" album, along with "Donīt say goodbye (tonight)") right after "The final days". It creates a great contrast.

The violins and the cello, are they real or did you create these sounds on your keyboards?

I play them with the keyboard, yeah. Even the acoustic guitar is me. Itīs a keyboard acoustic guitar. Yeah, Iīm playing all the tracks on that. Same thing with "Spirit of STEELE", Iīm playing all the tracks.

They sound so real...

Oh yeah, there are quite good sounds these days.

This concluding track (best choice, too) gives the listener an impression of what the acoustic live set, which you performed together with Ed last year in Munich, sounded like. I find it really a pity that you didnīt record it for an official release. But, who knows.

So, what are your plans for the near future? You know, the fans hunger for more VIRGIN STEELE live shows, world wide. You wonīt let them die by starvation?!

No, (laughs)! We wanna do more live shows and we wanna film them and record them for a DVD and a future live-album. Sure, it will be that and some of the acoustic things we have spoken of might be on a live-album, they might be also just on the next studio-album. Or they might be used in a special acoustic sort of EP. Iīm not quite sure what we're gonna do with that and what not. May be a little bit of all that I just mentioned will happen

especially the acoustic side of things īcause we do enjoy doing that. As I said there will be another studio-album, probably a collection of unrelated tracks, that Iīm working on right now. I'm sure, Ed has some things that he wants to explore as well, so when we start sitting down together to come up with stuff, we'll see. But Iīve been writing already, various things, and also there will be for 2003, ahhhh.... I have to do another opera. So there will be another major "HOUSE OF ATREUS" -type metal/metallic opera work as well.

Thank you for the interview. Itīs been a great pleasure for me to have talked to you again, David! Greetings to Ed, Frank and Josh and Frank, we all hope to see you live on stage soon!

Thanks to you! Yes, the extended family of VIRGIN STEELE. Thatīs something, thatīs a question that I am often asked. People ask about the bass-players in the band or whatever in the line-up. Well, the line-up is the line-up. The line-up is me and Eddie of course and Frank Gilchriest whoīs been with us since 1994. And even though he didnīt do the last tour with us, heīs still in the band and still very much playing on the records. Heīs still there and he will probably come out on the road on the next dates. Frank Zummo who filled in for him on drums also plays a couple of tracks on "THE BOOKOF BURNING". Heīs playing on "Redeemer" and "Final days". When you actually see the book you'll see that it tells you on/under each track who played what. Josh Block who played bass on tour with us, during this last tour we just did, is playing some bass on the record and heīs playing guitar too on several things! Heīs playing guitar on "Rain of fire", "Chosen ones" and "Children of the storm", to mention just a few. Not the lead break on "Children of the storm", that was Ed. But he played quite a bit of rhythm guitar and some solos as well. Solo no.2 and no.3 on "Rain of fire" thatīs Josh, yeah. And Ed was cool with that, there were no ego-problems. Frank was cool, Frank G. was cool and everything. So, we have like an extended family a group of talented people who wanna work on the stuff. And itīs really quite a good space or place to be, to have all these talented guys around. Itīs really good.