The Golden Age of Death Metal (1985-1995): Bolt Thrower/Memoriam Vocalist Karl Willetts Waxes on Influential Bands
Bolt Thrower’s name does not refer to the Greek god of thunder, Zeus. It is in fact a large crossbow, a medieval batiste. It is the perfect moniker for a band who writes exclusively on the topic of war, or at least most of the time they’re writing on that sordid topic. War is something grand, whether you support it or not, it changes the fabric of our society.
A bolt thrower could change the fabric of society, too, ripping and impaling ranks of soldiers. How do you defend against the bolt thrower? How do you defend against the band Bolt Thrower? You can’t, their music will pound you, ground you, and light you on fire. It is melodic guitars. It has groove. The vocals are growly, but you can understand every word Karl Willetts speaks of, every bloody-muddy scene. Sometimes it’s pure fast hardcore, but it’s always on the topic of martial ways—battles won, battles lost, lives lost, lives survived, loss, pain, grief.
Karl knows grief all too well when his band mate Martin "Kiddie" Kearns passed and decided to pursue his loss combined with Benediction regulars, Frank Healy and Scott Fairfax and former Bolt Thrower drummer Andrew Whale joined the group as a way to fuel their bereavement into the ultimate English death record, Memoriam, which will come out on the 24th of March, 2017.
This interview, however, isn’t about Memoriam. There is a great video of Memoriam posted below, but this interview focuses exclusively on Karl Willett’s influences on how he shapes Bolt Thrower. Sit back and read the following interview concerning BOLT THROWER and don’t let the tunnel rats pongee your ankles.
Rex_84: Before you started writing songs for Bolt Thrower, back in the ‘80s, what bands did you listen to that spoke about war? Was Metallica a big influence?
Karl Willetts: Yeah, definitely. For us, in the U.K., we have a different sphere of influence from a lot of the main stream bands. The bands that I was listening to in the mid-eighties, before I joined Bolt Thrower, really generate from the anarcho-crust-punk scene. I’m talking about bands like Discharge—they had a really raw influence. Bands like Crass, as well. They are quite political. Antisect, the Amebix, Axegrinder, Deviated Instinct—all those bands that came from Hellbastard. The one major band that had an influence on me was a band called Sacrilege. They come from the West Midlands. Ironically, Frank, our bass player, was a member of sacrilege for a number of years as well. He still makes studio appearances. They were a major influence on me. They have a female lead singer named Lynda “Tam” Simpson. Watching them perform really gave me the inspiration to want to be in a band. Seeing them live at a place called The Mermaid in Birmingham, which is a legendary venue that Napalm Death grew up in. They played their nearly every week in their original format. We were good friends from that scene. That’s really where my sphere of influence developed.
Then we started to hear these demos, these “Metal Up Your Ass,” demos, which was like 1982 or ’83, from a band called Metallica. That was a whole different approach to playing music. It kind of had the speed and aggression and the delivery of what we were doing here in the U.K., but it had a totally different, more melodic-metal kind of sound to it. “Haunting the Chapel” 12 inch was massive. Possessed, of course “7 Churches,” hearing that. Then there was this new wave of bands like Morbid Angel and Atheist. All of these bands started to filter over from America. At the same time, bands from Europe started to filter over—bands like Hellhammer/Celtic Frost, and all of those bands that came over from mainland Europe—Entombed, all started to have their own thrust.
Rex_84: Do you like Unleashed?
Willetts: Of course, they are my favorite Swedish band. I played with Unleashed loads of time in the past. I’m good friends with Johnny Hedlund. We played with Unleashed last September in a festival in France called Fall of Summer. It’s so good to see those guys back in form again. They are definitely by far my favorite Swedish Death Metal Band, by far. They are a great bunch of lads and a fantastic band. We were in the middle of all these sounds coming along. That’s really what influenced us when we first got together. We merged all these different songs together and formulated our own. I can’t forget to mention bands like Bathory as well. Venom from our country was a huge influence on what we do. We weren’t really influenced by the metal thing.
Rex_84: What about Napalm Death?
Willetts: Of course. I bumped into Shane Embury yesterday. He lives around the corner. I bumped into him, yesterday at the post office, which is kind of bizarre (laughs). We used to hang out in pubs. Now we hang out in post offices (laughs). We need our death metal pensions.
We were like a melting pot. Bands like Iron Maiden, the NWOBHM and Teutonic bands like Tankard weren’t really on our radar.
Rex_84: You don’t like Kreator?
Willetts: To be perfectly honest, I’m not a big fan of Kreator. They are on our record label so I should check them out. I’ve never been a big fan of Kreator, though.
I fail to mention the global reach of the scene, too. Back when we first started, there was no Internet. There were no mobile phones. You had to go load in tons of pieces to make a phone call and use the phone book. Back then, it was all about tape trading.
Rex_84: Did you trade much with American death metal bands?
Willetts: Yeah, I have a lot of good friends in America.
Rex_84: Are you friends with Chris Barnes?
Willetts: I’m not but I’ve read some of the stuff he’s said and like where he’s coming from. I’m not a big Cannibal Corpse fan—they don’t float my boat, at all! Or SFU. That doesn’t appeal to me. I’m good friends with the guys from Malevolent Creation. Chris Reifert is considered a close friend. Eric Cutler is a lovely bloke as well. All the guys are great! Autopsy is my all-time favorite American death metal band. We shared a lot of experiences with Autopsy. They came on tour with us when they did their first European tour. We did our first European tour with them as well back in 1991. We have a shared history with Autopsy. We are playing with them on April the 1st up in Scotland at a fest called Lords of the Land. I’m really looking forward to catching up with the guys.
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