Interview with John Kevill of Warbringer

I tested my mettle (and my liver) on the famed 70,000 Tons of Metal this month and somehow convinced real metal PR folks that I was a real metal journalist. This may or may not have something to do with them thinking I was the Angry Metal Guy, despite my insistence otherwise. As fortune would have it, John Kevill, vocalist and founding member of thrash metal savants Warbringer (and a personal favorite since he was cool as hell to me in a venue bathroom in 2009 (wait, that sounds off (or does it?))), was willing to sit down for a bit. In true Warbringer fashion, John went right at it regarding his thoughts on metal journalism, context, and thrash metal writ large and was as thoughtful, forward, and unapologetic as his music. John’s forthcoming nature took the nerves out of my first interview and I’d like to thank him for being just as cool to me as he was all those years ago. Cannons start blasting from the start, so gear up and read on.

I’m from Angry Metal Guy.

Oh, I read your review of our last one.

I’m not the Angry Metal Guy.

He didn’t like us that much. He didn’t listen to the record that closely. Sometimes I read reviews and I can tell—it’s not based on who likes us or not—but just based on the type of commentary and the depth of it I can tell how closely they listened.

Knowing the guy [Steel Druhm, who I 100% sold down the river] who reviewed Woe to the Vanquished, he’s not much of a new school thrash guy. Does that frustrate you at all?

Oh yeah, with some people it’s like hitting your head against the wall. We could make the best record of all time and it wouldn’t matter. I consider humility essential to continuing to make good art, but you try to aim high. A lot of people review their pre-conceived notion and not the record we made. I felt that way about his review. Because he [criticized] a song about Valhalla, but “When the Guns Fell Silent” is about World War I, Valhalla is a metaphor, do you not know your shit, you fucking idiot, that’s how I feel. [laughs]1

I’ll let him know.

You can quote me. If he wants to sit down and talk to me and debate the review, I can own it. I’m trying to be an academic historian. A lot of these journalists can’t write on the level. I don’t fuck around, I’m trying to be a complete intellectual, and one of the reasons that brings me into metal is that I think it’s one of the only genres that has room for that.2

I see your point.

I’ve been beating my head against that rock for my entire career.

I’d actually love to see that. He is a very hard-nosed guy who will go at it with his opinions.

Oh ok. But here’s the thing that sucks about guys like that, “I only like old thrash, I don’t like new.” They have in their mind a completely artificial separation because time is irrelevant, only sound matters. When you put a record on, it doesn’t tell you the date it was fucking made. It sounds like what it sounds, and it’s either good or not. When you make this artificial line, and you’re like “I’m only on that side,” you’ve just ruined your own objectivity, and now you’re subjective and your opinion’s useless.

How do you feel about context when it comes to records then?

That’s the other side of it. I believe that the defining aspect of human existence is that of duality and paradox. In rationality, things cannot be A and not A, but human beings are irrational. The fact that conflicting, dualistic stuff within us that completely contradicts itself and is impossible to exist together exists together, that is the definitive trait of human nature. That’s my theory.

But I think context is important, but also I think if you listen closely to Warbringer records, you can say, “Alright, you got your old Slayer,” I often hear comparisons to Death Angel, and I don’t see it. Death Angel’s a very good band, not to detract from good artists, but I wouldn’t make that comparison myself. I see us more along the lines of Demolition Hammer, Morbid Saint, the early Kreator stuff, somewhere more in the extreme vibe, a hybrid of the American and German schools of thrash with a good dose of death and black influence.

Do you think that’s a result of who you’re lumped in with? The re-thrash scene as a whole started with-

Look at how loaded that fucking word is. Honest journalists should know better than to use that. You’re using a word that is one letter off of “rehash,” so you’ve already written off the record you’re reviewing before you’ve even started to talk about it. Honestly, that’s shitty journalism, objectively. The whole point of journalism is to be objective. If you can’t because of some other reason, don’t fucking write journalistic articles.

I find it an interesting term because it connotates Exodus, Death Angel, Vio-lence, bands in that school, but I don’t understand why retro-thrash, re-thrash, is tied to those specific bands. Why do you exclude Morbid Saint? Why do you exclude the old German bands?

Yea, Spectrum of Death’s ’87,3 Agent Orange was ’89.

Do you think you’re unfairly pegged because you’re tied to the scene? You guys were one of the first, at least that I was aware of, in that mold. I wouldn’t say you’re Exodus. You’re not, really.

We listen to Exodus, it’s a part of us. We owe something of our creative approach to the works that exist before us, and that’s true of literally any artist. I think at some point Warbringer decided, yes, we are a thrash metal band, yes, vicious thrashing is fundamentally what the band’s about. Look at the band name, look at the art. It all has to be consistent with itself. But when people are like, “Oh, nothing new, Slayer did it first,” where’s Slayer’s “When the Guns Fell Silent,” where’s Slayer’s “Divinity of Flesh,” where’s Slayer’s “Spectral Asylum?” These are melodic songs that have nothing to do with anything in the Slayer discography, even though we love Slayer and those records. Yes, I do a fast bark, but I try to put a sense of Dickinson and Halford theatrics in there that are absent in a lot of the fast bark vocals that are my influence. I’m a blend of all those things and I push myself. I like to think that I’m instantly identifiable.

Yes, that’s one of the reasons you’ve been one of my favorite thrash vocalists of the last decade. Nobody sounds like you and you don’t sound like anybody. It doesn’t sound like you’ve cribbed off of anybody.

To be quite honest, it’s a mixture. What makes you you, it’s a mixture of everything you like. Then, regardless of what you like, there’s what your voice sounds like. You have to work with that to get the emotion you’re trying to convey. Warbringer is very fast, angry, frantic, vicious, evil. Those are the things I’m really going for, but I also want to express my personal stuff. Past our first album or two, the way the lyrics and the writing have gone, I ask myself, “Ok, we make angry music. Why? Why am I angry?” I think there’s a very obvious answer to that. Have you been in the world lately? have you looked around? The worldwide arms race continues, nukes still exist, global tension is rising, the lessons of the past go unheeded because people don’t even know about them even though you have the internet and you can just read it.

Nobody has time for that.

No, but you’ve got time for the Kardashians, right? You make yourself stupid. It’s a society-wide thing, and there’s a lot of really negative trends going on when we have all this potential to use the high standard of living and technology that is available today to make us wiser and do better things. The fact that we aren’t, in my own mission statement, is the root of where all the anger in Warbringer comes from. I can tell you more about World War I and World War II battles than you ever wanted to know, but I’m a pacifist. I’m just very interested in the dark side of humanity.

There’s a distinct sound for the first two Warbringer records, especially when you consider how you’ve evolved over the last decade. Was that ethos, what you’re trying to convey now, always there or did you add more of that as time went on?

Kinda both. When you look at the themes of the first record, why it is war-inspired, I think it’s because of this, but I was 20 years old and had never written songs before and hadn’t really thought it through to the level I have now, 12 years later. So both. In the beginning, that’s where it came from with me, but I hadn’t consciously had that thought yet. You identified correctly that around the third record, that lyrical change starts to happen. “Total War,” for instance, is more random violence, if you will, whereas “Living Weapon,” the opener on the third record (Worlds Torn Asunder), has a very specific theme of how the soldier, the warrior, has to be an instrument of someone else’s will. Figuratively, they’re a sword or a gun in a hand, and that’s their being, and their life is being used that way. There’s something creepy about that. That was the theme of Full Metal Jacket, which is where I got the idea.

Good movie.

Yeah, it’s a good one. The bit that made me think of the idea for “Living Weapon” is where they’re going “Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.” Think about that, that’s creepy. I try to put that stuff that’s around us, that’s real in the world, into the songs. And of course, [death metal voice]what’s the most metal thing, the most evil shit.[/d] You hear death metal bands writing about serial killers, “your intestines on the wall, grrrrrrrrrrrrrrowl.” Shit, you know the whole career of Ed Gein, that’s like three seconds of World War II. You want to talk about evil, it’s in power structures, it’s in the government, it’s in thought control and how people can get other people to accept that on a macrocosmic scale. That takes more than just one guy going off the rails. That takes an entire society founded on some fundamentally wrong and fucked up things. I try to get a sense of that across, but I try to balance it. I don’t want to be overtly political, I don’t really like either side, to be honest.

How do you feel about where a band like Havok has gone versus a band like Lich King? One is in the same vein as you guys, at least in terms of trying to convey a message, and the other is very much “No message, fuck you guys, we have commentary, but it’s not specifically rooted in politics, in the world, it’s more this is what we think but it doesn’t really matter.”

I have a lot of thoughts on that. In the case of Havok, I’ve talked to David Sanchez. He and I agree with a lot of stuff. He and I both are people who have thought about this and are opinionated guys. I feel like he’s willing to be more on the nose with the lyrics, where you know exactly what he’s talking about.

His lyrics have gotten more like that over the years.

I think so, yea, the Fuck Political Correctness song (“F.P.C.”). For me, I like to be more allegorical. I like to give you the feeling and the image but let your brain do some it. I want you to have to ask what does he mean. The pieces are all there if you look at the song, but I want it to also be able to be enjoyable as a blast of angry emotion.

That’s the idea behind storytelling. If you tell someone the moral of the story, you’re preaching. If you get them to understand it without having to tell them, it has more impact.

I don’t mean to be critical of them. Havok are a great band, great guys. I just mean to highlight the differences in our approach. But I think a lot of the stuff we’re getting at in a similar vein. Cynicism about the state of the world. As far as Lich King or another band goes, I don’t do silly lyrics in general. I think it’s fundamentally a weaker animal.

What about something like “Cut the Shit?” Do you know that song by them?

Oh, it’s like “cut your pretentious stuff and write a short song.” So what would they think about my song “When the Guns Fell Silent,” which is eleven minutes, eleven seconds, because that’s when WWI ended. I’m very much on the other side of that.

Part of it is that, but there are also bits where they talk about bands mailing it in.

Oh ok, I getcha. They’re talking about stuff in the scene? You know a song I never want to write? I never want to write a song about the music scene I’m in.

You don’t like the meta stuff at all?

I fucking hate it. Come on, that’s internet forum-level shit. You’re an artist. If you don’t aim high, you won’t make it. I don’t think all music needs to be very serious or anything, but for thrash, the point is this release of anger. The reason thrash is fun, the reason you want to bang your head, the reason you wanna fuckin’ slam a beer, any of that, is because inside you already feel this anger and it gives you an out. I don’t have a super-serious facial expression on stage, I am happy, I’m having fun, but the music is deadly serious. That’s how I feel about it, and I think I’m right. [laughs]

That’s the best you can do, right? You do what you think is right.

Considering the classic works in thrash metal, Metallica, for instance, “Disposable Heroes,” “Fade to Black,” they’re very serious. That’s why I think people connect. It’s something that you already feel that the song gives voice to. I think if your message is “beer is sweet,” well, you didn’t have to think too much about that one. No shit, dude, water’s wet while you’re at it. Is that going to be a good song? Fuck no. If you change “back to the front” to “drink your bad beer,” that’s a way shittier song now. Way shittier. It’s no longer a classic because the power is gone. The riff by itself is not enough; you need the meaning. One of the bands that do this so well is Iron Maiden, and they’re one of my influences. Iron Maiden songs have a sense of setting and a narrative approach, a lot of their classic material. Not every song they’ve ever written. One must be critical if they want to make good shit themselves, even of the gods, even of your favorite bands. Find where they are your most favorite and where they are less so. This doesn’t mean I enjoy it any less; I enjoy it more because I am so critical. I am able to say “damn, they did everything right there.” If you can impress me like that, I’m like hell yes. We’re on a boat, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” that’s a 19th-century poem with a thematic story, and the music sounds like story telling. “Aces High,” where are you? Flying. “The Trooper,” you’re on a horse. I say this in like every interview.

I feel like so much modern metal forgets about this storytelling aspect because a lot of bands I hear, there’s these interchangeable vocalists doing like [death metal voice]wahowahwohawifohneoifnaoisdf[/d] and it’s like, ok, why do you feel that way? What is the point? It’s not that I’m listening to you because I want some intellectual, artistic message, I just want the feeling that’s coming out of the speakers to mean something. If you’re just doing whatever, and your vocalist sounds like 900 other bands’ vocalists, I don’t give a shit. I’m interested in the best stuff. I’m not only interested in metal because “yeah metaaaaaal.” I believe it’s a valid artistic thing, and I feel that for us to beat, to equal the many great records in many different styles that have been made, you have to really push yourself and think deep into it. Reign in Blood, Master of Puppets, Rust in Peace, Powerslave, all of this already exists. What are you going to add? You have to push yourself, and if you don’t, and you’re just like “yea, we’re going to play death metaaaaaal,” hey, people have done this. What are you going to add to this? How is your death metal going to be interesting and unique? That doesn’t mean we’re like “We’re pirate folk death metal.” I think that gimmick stuff is bullshit too. I hate all of it. To be honest, I fucking hate it. I consider it a lame copout where you don’t have an original idea so you just go for a gimmick. I’m, as you can tell, extremely critical, but that is the root of being able to make the music I do because I am no more critical of anyone than myself and my own band. I feel like I have a duty to rage hard on stage; otherwise, I am not actively representing my music the way it needs to be. I take it as a matter of honor and personal pride. Furthermore, this extends to how I conduct myself when fans talk to me. I’ll stop and have a conversation with you.

I’ve seen you around, you’ve been a real nice guy.

Not always, depends on what you ask me, but I will talk to you. I will give you the time of day unless I don’t have it. I usually do. Most people are not as busy as they make themselves out to be. I see it as an opportunity to make an impression on somebody, to give them a piece of what I’m here for, what’s in my heart, and why I care about heavy metal. Hopefully, for people that have bands, I think that this kind of meta-thought about why are we hear, what are we doing is really important. Metal is something deeper for me than just an excuse to slam a beer and bang my head. Why do I want to do those things when I hear it, it’s because I already feel it, I already care and I want real, valid, crafted, thought-out, passionate art that reflects that. That’s why I’m here.

Thank you very much. I’ve been a fan for a lot of years, and I’m looking forward to the next record.

Thank you, me too.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. None of this actually happened in my review, so Mr. Kevill was thinking of another review or was otherwise greatly confused. – Steel
  2. See prior footnote and draw your own conclusion re: Mr. Kevill’s perplexing assertions here. – Steel
  3. Ed. Note: Spectrum of Death was released in 1988
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