Martin Steene To Arjen Anthony Lucassen: "Call Me, Motherfucker!"
Just after the “To the Grave” album, Iron Fire made a pact. With a changing world and the ever growing stagnation surrounding power metal these days, the band made a decision to play with the sound to freshen it up and elevate the band beyond the norm and above the fray. The change was delayed a bit with the release of “Metalmorphosized,” which was not the original planned album, but one that ended up as a collection of unused songs that were re-recorded along with three newer sounding tracks that were intended for a later release. It was a test by the band to see how the fans would react, mixing standard brand Iron Fire with new fresher sounding power metal. With the reaction solid, the band continued to “metalmorphosize” the sound until it eventually became “Voyage of the Damned” (see our review here).
Martin Steene caught up with Metal Underground to discuss his views on power metal, how it needs to change and why Iron Fire had to make a leap of faith in an effort to separate itself from the pack and drive the power metal scene into a new stratosphere. Steene also makes a desperate plea for a phone call from Ayreon's Arjen Anthony Lucassen!
CROMCarl: I noticed that “Voyage of the Damned” is proof of how good a band can progress within its own sound. The sound is both progressive and heavier than previous Iron Fire efforts but still maintaining that true power metal sound. Where you striving to freshen up the Iron Fire sound for a more modern feel?
MS: It was definitely the plan. When we did the “To the Grave” album years back, back in 2009, we were a bit fed up with doing…not doing what we do, but we thought we kind of pushed the limit in that direction and ‘let’s do something a little different.’ That’s pretty hard when you do classic power metal stuff, because if you move one way the fans are gonna say “ahhh not true anymore’… if you move the other way, you know…it’s a challenge for sure. The thing that I wanted to do was I thought: ok, we’ve been doing this for fuckin’ 10-12 years and when I listen to many other power metal releases I’m getting a bit bored. I definitely wanted to hear something a little more refreshing and not so restrained within the genre, because it’s usually always the same thing. There is so much music in the world and so many different ways you can do it. So we actually sat down and agreed the next one was going to be different. We were going to do everything…every fucking riff, every fucking drum beat, every fucking vocal line and we would be doing a little bit different. One thing that has been said to us is that on the music side we can go many ways. If we start to think too different, it’s gonna fuck up. I’ve got a special voice, no doubt about that, and that is kind of the mark on whole Iron Fire sound. So why not try to push things in other directions because that’s more interesting as a musician also. If I came up with being the Martin Steene thing…even that I tried to change a bit. But then, you know, the sound of Iron Fire will still be there. You understand what I mean?
CROMCarl: I understand exactly what you mean. To touch on what you said, it does seem like the power metal scene has become a little stagnant and needs to be freshened up. What you did is go out and achieve that with “Voyage of the Damned.”
MS: Mmmmm. That’s the good thing about reading the reviews now. It is the thing we wanted to achieve with this album…at least some people out there understand it. I think it’s important that power metal is gonna evolve a bit because there’s a lot of things that have happened with the world since the 80’s, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a different market and its different people listening to different music nowadays. So, you can go further than just the typical Helloween stuff.
CROMCarl: Let’s talk about the writing process with the album. I noticed you took a bit more time with this one, as opposed to how quickly “Metalmorphosized” was released after “To the Grave.” Was a longer break necessary to get revitalized for writing “Voyage of the Damned.”
MS: Actually, after the “To the Grave” album we started to write this album. It took a long time for us to write these songs and kind of renew ourselves. That is almost impossible to do as a band, but we wanted to do it. So after a year, the record company comes to us and said ‘hey, do you have something for a new album?’ We had about seven or eight songs, but I didn’t think we were quite there. That is when we came up with the whole anniversary thing with “Metalmorphosized.” We had a lot of old songs, nine in the drawer…good songs! We went in and re-recorded everything and then we added three of the new songs. So, three of the songs from “Metalmorphosized” were actually meant to be on this album. We did that to celebrate the anniversary of ten years since the first album, so that people would have an album from the beginning to where we are now. A lot of people didn’t understand that because I didn’t think that whole concept got promoted enough. People thought it was a weird album because the sound was so different, but that was actually the plan. The plan was also to release that album and buy us another year to write this album.
CROMCarl: Out of curiosity, which three songs from “Metalmorphosized” were intended for “Voyage of the Damned”?
MS: It was “My Awakening,” “Still Alive” and….ummmm…..
CROMCarl: I’m testing you now….
MS: …..hahahaha…..I was going to say “Back to Hell” [from Force of Evil] but that was not with that band…hahahaha. Ummmm, it was the last one, “The Phantom Symphony.” Anyway, it was those three songs from that album. So, we thought ‘let’s put those out there to the fans and let’s see how they react before we come out with the full album.’ So, if people would think ‘this is so shitty or it’s too hard,’ then whatever. We kind of had the time to think about it. But there were no people that reacted like that and everybody thought it was cool. It was kind of a teaser of “Voyage of the Damned.”
CROMCarl: Is “Voyage of the Damned” a conceptual album? What is the story behind it?
MS: It’s a theme album. You know, I wanted to do something from the warriors and the battlefield stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve been doing that for many years. It has its limits. In becoming an older musician, you want to express yourself. I thought, I haven’t been doing space. I’m a big sci-fi fan, so why not do that. I took inspiration from classic movies like “Alien,” “Space Odyssey” and all those movies and twisted into something weird (laughs). There are a lot of personal things also in the lyrics, so as you listen to it, it sounds like everything is about space, but it actually isn’t about space. It is, but there is something beneath it. I don’t want to give that away, but there is a lot of personal things in it too. I was pretty fucked up at a point, years back, and some of things were written back then. That is why it is a bit darker too.
CROMCarl: I’m always curious with the way this works, because I am not a musician. When you write a longer epic tune like the title track, does it usually start off as a couple of song ideas or does it evolve from one idea?
MS: There is a story behind that. This is how it went. “Voyage of the Damned” was one of the last songs that we rehearsed and wrote. The song was written by guitarist Kirk Backarach, and he wanted to make this epic long tune. We did it in the rehearsal room. I came up with the chorus, or something like that and then we went into the studio and I didn’t have the rest of the lyrics or anything. So, we went into the studio with the confidence that we could pull this shit off. Kirk has always been good at coming up with good hook lines. So we went in and did the drums and I got the track sent to me from Denmark, because I moved to Norway. It didn’t make it easier that I moved to another country in the middle of all this. So, I actually go the tune sent to me and Kirk Backarach said ‘hey, now you have to work your magic on this. This is going to be the title track.’ So I just tried to come up with the lyrics and all that stuff. It turned out fucking great. I love that song. It’s one of the best songs we’ve ever done.
CROMCarl: One thing I had read somewhere, but it wasn’t part of any of the promo material was that you tapped Dave Ingram (Benediction) for guest vocals on this album? I was a little reluctant to mention it in my review, because I had not seen it mentioned anywhere else so I wanted to confirm it with you.
MS: Yeah. Dave is living in Copenhagen. He was a friend of a friend. From the beginning of this album, I knew that I wanted to have more different vocals on it. And sure, I can do the death metal thing, but it fucks my voice up because I’m not a death metal singer. I did it on “Leviathan” and some of the other stuff, but I had the chance to get Dave Ingram in and he went in and did the vocals for “Slaughter of Souls.” So, with him being a legend with the whole death metal thing it was just a cool feature for the album.
CROMCarl: I was wondering if you had done any of the death metal vocals, and you certainly did it on “Leviathan” since when I saw it in the video I thought ‘well, he is either mouthing it, or he actually sang it.’
MS: I would never have done a video where I lip synched it if I didn’t sing it in reality, so…
CROMCarl: Right, I wouldn’t think so. I was just wondering if I was wrong about Ingram because none of the promo materials for the album mentioned it.
MS: No, no, and if there is a bit of confusion of which song Dave Ingram is singing on, he is doing all the growling and all that shit, but it is on the cover [liner notes]. I also want to say one thing about the title track where I got another great musician which is Nils from Pagan’s Mind. I don’t know if you know Pagan’s Mind, do you?
CROMCarl: I know them very well. Great band.
MS: Yeah, they are fucking great. Actually, when I moved to Norway, I moved to the same town where Pagan’s Mind comes from.
CROMCarl: No kidding!
MS: So, that’s actually how I hooked up with Nils and he came and sang on that track and fucking works out great, man.
CROMCarl: I cannot say enough about that band. Their last album was amazing.
MS: Yeah, so amazing, that is for sure.
CROMCarl: Where was the video for Leviathan filmed?
MS: It was filmed in the outskirts of Copenhagen at just a warehouse. It was a bit difficult because we want to make a video for this one, the first video ever for Iron Fire. The concept is space. How the fuck do you make a video with a minimum of money where everything is set in space. That’s not fucking possible. So we talked to a lot of people about where we should do it and how should we do it. We couldn’t do what we wanted to do because it would cost the same as a Hollywood movie. So we just ended up at the warehouse and it got the fast clipping and we tried to do different things that somehow could follow up somehow with the concept. It is really a limited budget on that. It is not financed by any record company or anything, it is financed by our own money.
CROMCarl: When you think of all these years with Iron Fire, you have to be proud of what you were able to accomplish. I know we are talking about “Voyage of the Damned,” but what would you say was your most satisfying moment?
MS: There is a lot of them. Going out on tour with U.D.O. and Primal Fear was a good thing….
CROMCarl: That was in 2007, right?
MS: Yeah. We always have high hopes for this band and working our asses off. It is a difficult business, you know. It has not been as acknowledged as we want, but, you know, that’s life. We are just going to have to work on it. So there are a lot of proud moments, every time we release and album it’s a proud moment. There has been many. But there has also been many downs, you know. It’s a combination of ups and downs constantly.
CROMCarl: So, are there any touring plans for “Voyage of the Damned”?
MS: Uh, no. Touring is difficult because it costs money. We could book a tour in Germany and maybe thirty people would show up, or something like that. It would suck a bit, not for that – it’s always nice to play for the people – but for financial reasons and stuff like that. So what we need to do is get on a tour with bigger bands as support. Shit like that costs a lot of money. If you don’t have a record company that is willing to back that up, you’re fucked. It is so much money, you cannot pay for it out of our own pocket. Right now, Napalm is not really backing it up. That makes it pretty hard for us to tour, plus we would want to tour the whole world, but that is not reality. What we are gonna do is put our effort into doing shows here and there and try to get on some festivals, just see what we can do.
CROMCarl: Now you have a show planned pretty soon, right?
MS: There is a release show in Copenhagen this Saturday. Actually, I’m going to drive on my way to Copenhagen tomorrow morning and we have the last rehearsal tomorrow evening and then it’s Saturday. That will be the first Iron Fire concert in a year. So that is going to be great and nerve racking also. After all those years, I still get fucking nervous.
CROMCarl: Right, It’s also going to be the first time you play the new stuff too.
MS: Yeah, yeah, and a lot of things have to work out. By moving to another country, we do not rehearse, well the band rehearses back in Copenhagen, but I’m not there, so I have to fly back and forth and rehearse as much as I can and prepare here at home. It’s going to be a little edgy, that’s for sure. We’ve been doing this for so many years, so it should be no problem to pull it off. Everything you have to do your best in life, in sports or job, and you have to be a little nervous if you want to do it 100%. The people expect it too.
CROMCarl: What other metal albums are you listening to these days?
MS: Ooooooohhhh. The new Iced Earth. Pretty close with the whole sci-fi thing. You have the new album?
CROMCarl: I love it. I reviewed that one too.
MS: It’s doing good still. I’m a big Matthew Barlow fan, but Stu is doing great!
CROMCarl: I think Stu is the best singer they ever had, no disrespect to Matt or Ripper. He can do anything!
MS: Yeah! I am really looking forward to the future with that because over time it’s really going to be fucking killer, it already is killer! They are one of my favorite bands for sure. Besides that, I actually picked up the new Machine Head for tomorrow’s ride to Copenhagen. I try to catch up with different things. The new Dream Theater…I don’t know if I really like that, but I got it. Oh, the new Mystic Prophecy!
CROMCarl: That “Ravenlord” album is amazing.
MS: That’s a fucking good band! When I hear that album and that band….I’ve been following that band for a couple of years and have all the albums too. For me, is great fucking power metal because it’s not that happy, but it still has the whole power metal/melodic thing. Love that band! I actually hope we can do something with them in the future. Iron Fire on a tour with Mystic Prophecy would be fucking great!
CROMCarl: No kidding! I know your primary concern is Iron Fire, but I wonder if the world might see anything new from Force of Evil or Nightlight again someday?
MS: Well, you know Force of Evil has been down since 2005. That sucks a bit because it was a great band. The second album we did, we kind of got more into it and got it working a bit better. But suddenly Hank [Shermann], he wouldn’t do it anymore and there was a lot of fuck ups with the record company and all that shit. So we haven’t been doing that. Hopefully, we are going to do something one day, but Hank is the boss (laughs). Sure I want to do it one day, of course. They are great guys, great musicians. They are fucking legends, man. So far, no plans about that, that’s for sure. The other band you mentioned, Nightlight, was a thing I had going on for a couple of years and we made the one album [“Funeral of Love”] and it was something we kept trying to do, but it didn’t work out. With me moving to Norway, it was impossible to have two bands. So I had to cut that off. I loved doing the Nightlight thing. It was a really important thing for me to do, and do something a little different , because when you do things that are a little different….when you return home, Iron Fire for me, you return home with more passion and realize where your roots are. Right now, no Nightlight. It’s 100% Iron Fire for me.
CROMCarl: Any guest appearances that you have been asked to do at all?
MS: I am waiting for Arjen [Anthony Lucassen of Ayreon] (laughs)!!! He is not fucking calling me!
CROMCarl: I just interviewed Ed Warby and he is waiting on that call as well!
MS: (laughs) I guess many people are waiting on his phone call! To answer the question, not really, just focusing on Iron Fire. That works great for me. I moved to Norway and got a family and my mind is set on different things. Everything in life is not about music. I’ve been living for music my whole adult fucking life. It was time for me to, I wouldn’t say kick back, but get my priorities a little more fixed. You can’t live a 100% for a band…I mean, I’m glad we are Iron Fire, but if you have to live on it, you have to earn more money. It has to be a big career.
CROMCarl: Well, I am happy that you continue to put out albums, especially like the new one.
MS: Thanks, man. We are not going to stop that for sure. We love doing this, we are not earning any money on it – its total passion. We just want to make some good music.
CROMCarl: I really appreciate your time Martin!
MS: Just remember to underline the thing with Ayreon…Call me, mother fucker! (laughs)
CROMCarl: I will, definitely! [You reading this Arjen?]
Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.
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