Diamond Head interview (11/2020)
|Conducted by:||RaduP, nikarg (skype)|
Diamond Head is a name that crosses any metalhead's mind when thinking both about NWOBHM bands and about bands whose influence supersedes their commercial success. Releasing their landmark album Lightning To The Nations forty years ago and then having mixed commercial success, influencing some of the biggest bands to come in the years following, and then reunions and breakups would follow until a more stable lineup would release 2016's self titled Diamond Head and our own fan favorite The Coffin Train (which we nominated for best heavy metal album of 2019). Now Diamond Head are using this lineup to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Lightning To The Nations with a re-recording of it. We're here with the last founding member still in the band: Brian Tatler.
Lightning To The Nations 2020
Radu: So I'm here with Brian Tatler of Diamond Head. So you are releasing a new rerecording of Lightning To The Nations. How did you decide to rerecord it and what was the feeling of playing these songs in the studio after 40 years?
BT: We decided last year. We were having a little conversation and our drummer, Karl [Wilcox], reminded me that we're coming up to the 40th anniversary of Lightning To The Nations in 2020 and he said, "Wouldn't it be good if we could rerecord the debut album now, with this lineup, this production, modern technology, make it sound as powerful as the band is now?" And I thought it would be a great way to mark the anniversary and to bring the songs into the 21st century. So we made a start, really, last year, we went over the covers in December and in January this year and then just worked on tempos. We didn't have to really rehearse the album because we've been playing it - you know, I've been playing it for most of my life (laughs), so it's pretty much ingrained in me.
[Ed: Brian has a lovely West Midlands accent and I adore the way he says, "coming up to the 40th anniversary."]
And did you say something like "how was it recording it now" or something like that, the second half of your question?
Radu: How was the feeling of playing these songs in the studio instead of just live?
BT: Ah, okay. Well, it's just a case of trying to get it down. Obviously I'm very well-practiced; I know the songs inside-out. I didn't spend ages on it. I got all the guitars down in, like, two days, we did the drums in two days - I spent two days doing my guitars and I think Abbs [Andy Abberley] did his guitars in two days. It's just a case of capturing the vibe as best you can and enjoying it… I didn't stress about every little detail, making sure it's perfect - it's more of we're playing it sort of how we play it live, but you're sitting down and you're concentrating. (laughs)
Radu: And you recorded four cover songs for this version. What do each of these songs mean to you?
BT: Yeah. When we decided to do the album, Lightning To The Nations, I said we should do some covers as bonus tracks, and all along I wanted to do a Metallica song. I sort of suggested that about maybe a year or so ago, I said it'd be good to do a Metallica song. It would generate a lot of interest, the press would like it; the fact that they've covered Diamond Head and now Diamond Head's covered Metallica just seemed like a really good angle.
So it was a case of picking the songs. First of all, I wanted to do "Sinner" because it's a great Judas Priest song [Ed: It's a great Judas Priest song] and something that I play very often in sound checks and rehearsals, so it just became, like, let's pick the songs that will work with this lineup, this band, and we had a go at a couple others, but "Sinner" worked perfectly for us.
Going back to Metallica a second, with the choice of the Metallica song, it was down to - I wanted to do something off of the debut album, off Kill 'Em All, because they covered Diamond Head's debut album, Lightning To The Nations, and so I listened through every track and I thought there was something about the track "No Remorse" that I really liked. It had a bit of a Diamond Head quality to it. There was something in the writing that lent itself to Diamond Head, so I said to everybody, "Let's learn 'No Remorse' and try it in rehearsal". That is exactly what happened, and then it sounded great in rehearsal; almost straight away we were all grinning, saying, "Yeah, yeah, that's amazing".
And then going on to "Immigrant Song" - one of my all-time favorite rock/metal songs is "Immigrant Song", so I really wanted to do that one, and we are very fortunate to have a singer in the band with the kind of range that he can get up there, in the Robert Plant or the Rob Halford, without batting an eyelid [Ed: I can do that, but it involves the frequent batting of many eyelids], so I thought if we've got a singer that could actually sing these classic songs, we should definitely do them.
And then "Rat Bat Blue" - I'm a big Purple fan, but I didn't want to do anything really obvious. You know, you'd think, "Okay, they'd probably do 'Highway Star'" or something like that, one of the big ones, maybe "Space Truckin'" or something, but I thought, let's not do anything off Machine Head, let's do something off Who Do We Think We Are, which is the album after - slightly overlooked, it's kind of eclipsed by Machine Head. And I really liked "Rat Bat Blue", I've always liked it, and I wanted to also pick a song that didn't rely heavily on the Jon Lord Hammond organ sound, such a big part of Deep Purple, as we don't have a keyboard player, so I wanted to do something that worked guitar-wise and was just riffy, and then I picked "Rat Bat Blue".
Radu: Yeah, it makes sense, since you do not have that part of their sound in the band. Also it makes sense to pick a Metallica song that's really Diamond Head-influenced, since they clearly have been listening to a lot of Diamond Head when they wrote that album.
BT: Absolutely. I think of all their albums Kill 'Em All leans the most towards Diamond Head.
Radu: Does it ever feel weird to you that every time you're doing an interview about your band, somehow Metallica always comes up?
BT: (laughs) Well, it's just the way it is; I don't mind at all! I've probably been doing that for 20 years, that Metallica get mentioned - and, to be fair, we're a metal band, they're a metal band, but they're the biggest metal band -
Radu: Yeah, pretty much.
BT: Of all time, and they've covered four Diamond Head songs. [Ed: And of those four songs, "Am I Evil?" was 26 of them.] So it's gone incredible. It's a hook for Diamond Head to latch onto Metallica. But I absolutely don't mind. I think they're a great band. I'm still in touch with Lars. We've been friends for almost 40 years.
Radu: If you went back in time and showed the 1980 version of yourself the 2020 version of the album, what would he say?
BT: (laughs) I suppose he would think it's great, because it sounds so big. We recorded the original album in a week - recorded and mixed - so it was quite quick, and it was great for the time, but I think the modern production you would never have been able to get back in 1980, the way you can layer guitars and vocals and things. I would probably have been blown away by the new version, to my little brain in 1980, I probably wouldn't have known how on earth did you make this record? (laughs) Yeah, I'm sure I would've liked to -
Radu: In addition to being glad that you're still a musician 40 years after that.
BT: It's incredible. I didn't think I'd still be talking about that album 40 years later than when we made it. You know, we couldn't even get a record deal with it. It was a real struggle, it was a real frustrating time in '80, '81 -
Radu: What were those executives thinking, not signing your band? [Ed: I don't know, but it involved cocaine.]
BT: Exactly, what were they doing? They signed other bands, you know, so why didn't they sign Diamond Head? I'm at a loss, really. I suppose it just shows that record companies don't know everything. But we also didn't have very good management, and maybe that was part of the, uh, the problem, shall we say.
[Ed: Golly, I may have to censor this part. We came here to praise our existing system, not to rake muck.]
Radu: Hm. Yeah, well, let's say that I have listened to a lot of music from that period and the original Lightning To The Nations does not sound that bad quality-wise, recording quality-wise, compared to a lot of the stuff that has happened, so it's great that such a do-it-yourself album, an unsigned, lo-fi, indie thing, got so big in the metal world.
BT: Yes, it's incredible the longevity of that record and the life that it still enjoys. I've seen it in lists - you know, "10 Best Albums of the '80s" and things, "most important", you know, and it's alongside things like Appetite For Destruction, Master Of Puppets, and things, incredible, multimillion-selling albums, and there's our little Diamond Head album that we couldn't get a deal for and we ended up pressing 1,000 copies to sell at gigs and mail order, and it's there with the big albums. And yet, as we discussed, labels in the UK weren't interested.
Radu: For some reason.
Radu: Well, I think if you went back in time and showed yourself that version of the album, I think you would like it, but I'm not sure the other guys would, since they're not on it.
BT: (laughs) That is true. It's a completely different band now, I suppose, apart from meself. (laughs) We made the best album we possibly could at the time. I think the songs are the reason we're still talking, that they've lasted 40 years and there's some quality in the songwriting, and, yeah, the production might not be all that, but you can't deny a good song, a well-written song, and we definitely had that down back then. We'd spent four years before that album was made writing songs; that's pretty much all we did. We hadn't done many gigs, but every week we'd get together and we'd write songs, and I think we'd really learnt our craft, and by the time we made Lightning To The Nations we'd written around a hundred songs and we picked probably the seven best to go on that album, so a lot of time and effort had gone into the writing of that album. It's obviously the right thing to do, because we still hear now that they've lasted this long. Metallica obviously spotted something in the quality of the songs to cover them -
Radu: That the record companies didn't. [Ed: Boy, I'm starting to think that Radu is nursing a grudge here or something.]
BT: Yeah, absolutely. (laughs)
Radu: So one thing that I kind of learned today, because for some reason I was under the impression that, like, the first record was 1980, but that means that you were formed around the same time, like in 1980 the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal exploded, but then you released a demo, the first demo, in 1977. That's, like, three years before the whole thing - your longevity goes a longer way than most other bands.
BT: We started in '76, so, you know, other bands started around that time - I know Iron Maiden started around '75, and I think so did Saxon. I mean, they were under a different name; they were called Son Of A Bitch at first.
Radu: A better name, if you ask me. [Ed: Yeah, but we can't print it.]
BT: (laughs) Well, it's the same, we were just 16-year-old kids still in school when Diamond Head was formed - I think Sean [Harris] was still 15 when he came down for his little audition - and when we made the album four years later, we'd written so many songs, I think we'd learned so much from making demos, constantly making demos in my bedroom and this factory where we used to rehearse, that we'd got the quality in the writing by the time we went to make the album. And we were still very young; we were still only, like, 20 at that point, or 19. I think Sean was 19, I was 19. So it's just full of energy, it's full of enthusiasm, and it's like our "big chance" - we've been given a week in a studio to make a record. Let's go for it.
Radu: Does it ever feel weird that you're the only one who's still in the band from those days?
BT: Yes, it does a bit. It would've been lovely for the band to have stuck together, but that doesn't happen very often. It's very rare for a band to keep the original lineup for 40 years, or 40+ years. There's not that many bands you can think on that still have the original lineup after 40 years, and unfortunately Diamond Head fell apart. I think if we'd have been successful straight away - like Iron Maiden seemed to get attention straight away. They signed to EMI, the albums went straight on the charts, to they had a following - they just seemed to build and build and build, whereas, as I say, we couldn't get a record deal, and we fell apart within about… by about '85. We didn't even "split"; we fell apart. So it's a really tough thing to hold a band together. I love this lineup, I think it's a great band, but it would be - in an ideal world, people love that romantic idea that the original guys formed at school, still going strong now, still having fun. That would have been incredible, it just wasn't realistic.
Radu: Yeah. But at the same time you have that complete opposite way to look at things, especially if, like, there is one band that releases some record of some notoriety and years down the line just one member reforms the band with four completely new guys just because the name is having notoriety, which is thankfully something that didn't happen with Diamond Head; it seems like things naturally kind of flowed eventually to you being the sole member instead of you reforming the band some years down the line because Diamond Head gets attention.
BT: Yes, the band reformed - well, it reformed in 1990 and then stopped again in '94, and then it reformed again in 2000 and it's been going ever since then. So, yeah, I just - I love Diamond Head. I always saw it as being like my baby; I formed the band, I came up with the name, I wanted to see it do well. I still enjoy playing the songs, I still enjoy being in a band, and I just want to keep it going as long as it can. I think only health, really, would stop Diamond Head. [Ed: You shouldn't say that these days.] I wanted to go around the world and then go around the world again.
Radu: Yeah, well, let's hope that happens some time soon.
BT: Yes. One day -
Radu: I think the great thing is that - sorry?
BT: I was gonna say one day we'll get to do a gig, but we haven't played for eight months, nine months.
Radu: Yeah, I hope I get to see you live some day. But I wanted to say that some people can look at you rerecording your classic album kind of in a wrong light, like you trying to relive your glory days and milk your achievements of years past, but it's not really the same case when you actually released a really great record last year, which for me sounds a lot like a different band, in a way. It's arguably your best record since Lightning To The Nations. How did you come up with such great material so late in your career?
BT: I think Ras [Rasmus Bom Andersen] has been a big part of it. He's a good writer and he's able to run with my ideas; nothing really fazes him. Plus we kind of try and make it sound like Diamond Head now - we have this brief where we reject things that just don't really work within the style of the band, we hone the sound down to make the most of the name and the style. And then Ras has been able to record and he's the producer and mixed it, so it was a case of, we can make this album - even though we ran into lockdown, we were still able to make the record and get something out for this year, make the 40th anniversary, celebrate the original album and celebrate the new version, give something to the fans… So it wasn't anything other than it seemed like a really good idea and we had the means to do it, so we did.
Radu: Yeah, okay. Do you think there was maybe a bit of grunge influence, particularly a Chris Cornell one, on The Coffin Train?
BT: I wouldn't say grunge, but Ras is a big fan of Chris Cornell -
Radu: I can tell.
BT: Yeah? He is his favorite singer, so occasionally you hear a note and think, "Oh, that sounds a bit like Chris Cornell", but in a way you could just say, "All right, that sounds like Robert Plant", or somebody else might sound like James Hetfield. It's just that that's his influence. We all get it from somewhere; I've got my influences and Ras has got his.
Radu: Okay, so name the biggest guitar influence in your life.
BT: I'd say Jimmy Page is my favorite guitarist, but I've also borrowed a lot of ideas from Tony Iommi and Michael Schenker and Eddie Van Halen, the late, great - and Ritchie Blackmore. Ritchie Blackmore's one of the main reasons I decided to learn to play and get good, practice. I'd kind of been messing about for years until I heard "Highway Star" and I thought, "Actually, I'd like to be able to play like that, so I'd better start practicing; I'd better put the hours in, do about 10,000 hours". (laughs)
Radu: Oh yeah. I know how much time it takes between practicing and actually getting to the stage to reap the cool rewards of all those hours of practice.
BT: Yeah, yeah, a lot of practice. I pretty much practice every day and have been doing so since 1975.
Radu: Keep it up, keep it up. [Ed: Gee, I wish Radu would encourage me sometimes.] So knowing how awful it is to release something without being able to tour for it, if you had the chance to play one sold-out gig now, but you could only choose between performing Lightning To The Nations in full or The Coffin Train in full, which one would you want to do?
BT: Oh, it would definitely be Lightning To The Nations. We haven't performed The Coffin Train in full, so we'd have to do a lot of rehearsal to get all those songs up and running, but we do most of the Lightning To The Nations songs live anyway, and we've done all seven of them many times. And in 2010 we did some 30th-anniverary shows, so we would play the whole album then, so we've done it lots of times. It would be much, much easier to do Lightning To The Nations. (laughs)
Radu: So that's the easier part, that's the pragmatic thinker in you, but what about if all these things, all these pragmatic things, were not in the calculation, so just what would you want to do? And nothing about, like, we already said that it's a sold-out gig, so don't think about what the fans would want. [Ed: Radu is just desperate to hear that Brian Tatler loves The Coffin Train as much as he does.]
BT: Okay, uh… I'd probably still do Lightning To The Nations anyway, because it's easy to play, it's great to play, it's gonna go down in a storm.
BT: I love The Coffin Train - the title track is absolutely brilliant, I think, we play at least three songs from that live - but usually when a band tours, they don't play the whole album, do they, a new album. They might do a couple of songs, but really you're there to see the show, the big classics.
Radu: Yeah, obviously.
BT: So we always play "Am I Evil?", we always play Lightning To The Nations, we always play "The Prince" and "Helpless".
Radu: Obviously. Those are the money-makers.
BT: Yeah, they're the big ones, the big guns.
Radu: How much time do we have left?
BT: Eh… I've got five minutes.
[Ed: Funny, I've got six minutes.]
Radu: Okay. So what is your opinion on the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal era? Do you think that the categorization from the Sounds magazine helped the bands that started in that period or not?
BT: 100%. Without the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, a band like Diamond Head may never have got anywhere. We were all pretty much around the country doing our own thing, kind of being influenced by the classic '70s rock bands, and there'd been so many incredible bands around in the '70s. I think we all just wanted to do something like that and maybe one day end up playing at our local big theatre - Birmingham Palladium, it would have been for us - and because Sounds appeared with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and then did features on Samson and Def Leppard and Angel Witch, what have you, then all of a sudden, we thought, "Oh, we could get a deal!" These bands are being signed - we noticed Def Leppard had been signed to Phonogram, Iron Maiden got signed to EMI, et cetera - and we just thought this is our perfect opportunity. We're the right age, we've got the songs, we look the part; let's go, let's just ride this train.
It was a brilliant opportunity, and without the exposure that Sounds gave to bands like Maiden, who knows where they would be now? You need some success, don't you? You need to start selling records to pay the bills, to hire PAs and roadies and vans and backline. Unless the money starts coming in, bands will fall apart.
Radu: Mhm. Okay, and speaking of falling apart, so many years later, what do you think of Canterbury?
BT: Eh, I still like it. I mean, I don't play it; I don't play any of the albums very often. But it was a tough album to make. If I take it purely as a piece of music, I think it's really good, but if I remember all the pain and anger that went into making it, where it split the band in half and it took us months to record it… Sean nearly had a nervous breakdown. We went through a lot of pain. That was our difficult third album, and it also cost a lot of money, so instantly the label were worried about the band because we'd just spent a load of money on an album that didn't sell as much as the previous album, which was Borrowed Time, so come January 1984 we were dropped from the label.
Radu: Hm. So that change in direction - that's really an album that doesn't sound like your previous two. How exactly did that come?
BT: I think - the songs for Lightning To The Nations were written between 1978 and the end of 1979, then the songs for Borrowed Time were probably written around 1980. Then by the time we got to Canterbury, which was 1983, we'd written a lot of new songs; things like "Out Of Phase", "The Kingmaker", "Canterbury", "I Need Your Love", were all written into '82, '83, and I think we'd moved on a little bit, because we hadn't been signed and we hadn't - with Lightning To The Nations, I mean. I think we'd changed direction a little bit. We must've thought, "Oh, well that style's not working; we couldn't even get a deal for it". So we stopped writing really fast, heavy songs and we started going a bit more commercial, and I think Sean decided that everything should now revolve around his vocal, and so instead of it just being a riff-based band, it became a sort of vocal-based band where Sean would come up with a melody and a lyric, then we'd fly in that direction. And as I say, I think we were just desperate to be successful and to maintain the level - once you get up the ladder a little bit and you've now got road crew and you have to hire a coach and a PA company and a lighting company, it costs you thousands and thousands of pounds to do a tour before you've even left the building. You need to start selling records to maintain that level, and it was really, really difficult for us. We didn't sell many records, so it didn't take long for it all to come tumbling down.
Radu: Yeah. And thankfully you managed to build it up in the last ten years.
BT: Well, we've been trying. We've been slogging away since 2000, trying to build it and build it. I still end up playing little pubs to 50 people sometimes, but that's life, you know; you either keep going or you throw in the towel, don't you?
Radu: Well, thankfully you didn't. I know that you probably have another interview lined up, so do you have any last words for our readers?
BT: Just, uh… keep the faith! (laughs) Come and see the band, check out the new album, have a look at us on diamondheadofficial.com, and hopefully we'll come to a town near you soon.
[Ed: Indeed, one hopes. Also, I'm glad that he gave us the URL of the new website, because, and I'm not kidding, the band's former domain name had expired and been reclaimed by an Indonesian gambling site. Yes, we had this listed on their profile and nobody said anything.]
BT: Thanks for supporting us all these years.
Radu: No problem. Okay, have a nice day.
BT: Thank you, cheers. Nice to talk to you.
Thanks to ScreamingSteelUS for transcribing the interview and to nikarg for basically writing half of the questions.
||Posted on 29.11.2020 by Doesn't matter that much to me if you agree with me, as long as you checked the album out.|
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