It’s been a while since we last interviewed Steve Ramsey. This was actually before you released ‘Life Sentence’, which can be seen as your comeback album. Now ‘Cruel Magic’ is out, so it’s time to catch up a bit. Let’s start with the fact that the reunited line-up that also recorded the classic ‘Court In The Act’ is still intact. It seems you guys are still having fun writing recording and performing your music?
Hi Pim, Russ here. Thanks for reaching out again and yes, who knew that six years later we’d have written and released another three full length albums!? And also toured the world twice over! Life can be so bizarre sometimes, things happen that you could just never predict. We didn’t really stop to question it though, we’ve just kept moving. Life has never been so busy or adventurous as it is now and none of us are complaining about it. We’ve been very fortunate to be in the position of still having all five members from ‘Court In The Act’, which I believe makes all the difference to how we work and make music together. The last five years has been a steep upward curve for this band and now that we’ve signed to Metal Blade the sky is the limit. Yes, exciting times indeed.
Looking at the fact you’ve recorded all three albums that came out since 2013 at the same studio (First Avenue Studio in Newcastle upon Tyne) suggests you don’t like change that much? Or is it more the fact you like to record close to home and you get to work with a good engineer and producer?
The way we look at it is “Why change a formula that works?“. I suppose we could try to do something else - different environment, new team etc. see what happens, but the bottom line is that we want to be focused 100% on the music while we are in a recording studio. Having a studio and a procedure we are already familiar with means that we aren’t going be worrying about technical issues or the sound or wondering if the studio monitors are accurate. Dave Curle is the best engineer. He takes care of all that stuff, allowing us to simply concentrate on our performances. And mixing is once again handled by Dario Mollo. By now we don’t have to tell him what we want. He already knows! We don’t even go to Italy anymore to attend the mixing sessions. He knows us so well.
The same thing basically applies to the cover art that once again was done by Eliran Kantor. I suppose you love his style? I also wonder if you talked about the way the art should look when you were working on ‘Life Sentence’ as it does resemble the cover art of ‘Court In The Act’ a bit. I assume you wanted art in a similar style on ‘Atom By Atom’ and ‘Cruel Magic’ too?
It’s true we did request that Eliran retain the central character of the judge, but nothing more than that. He can well do without our crude input when it comes to content. And even concept. He has his own ideas and demands artistic control of what he paints. He is a true artist in that way. We give him a title, some words, and maybe some new music in demo form. That is all he needs.
The art on ‘Cruel Magic’ has got nothing to do with the lyrical content of the title track, right?
Actually yes that’s right - how did you know that? (I think that is called journalism ;) – PB)
The song itself is about Witchcraft as a weapon. Particularly in the African form of Voodoo. We gave Eliran the title & lyrics and figured his artwork would reflect that but, he took the two words ‘Cruel Magic’ and turned the meaning onto its head. What you see on the cover is a scene from Puritan times with the Judge playing the part of Witchfinder General. Yes the common theme is still Witchcraft (or magic), only that in this scenario it is the ‘Witches’ who are being subjected to cruelty. Of course most of these ‘Witches’ were innocent young women being persecuted in the name of God. If they survived the drowning pool it meant they must be a witch and they were duly burned at the stake. If they drowned then they were ‘innocent’ and given a Christian burial. Cruel magic indeed.
Can you tell a bit more about the overall lyrical content? It seems the red thread is about injustice in this world?
Quite. Anyone who knows us knows we never sing about the Devil except in the most abstract terms. That said, we have no interest in light-hearted subject matter either. You will never hear the words 'Rock and Roll' in a Satan song, nor any references to sex, drugs, fast cars or motorcycles. Given that we are very much a heavy metal band, you may ask what's left to write about? But you'd be surprised. Generally bad things that happen in the world, real or imagined. And injustice in particular, has always been a big part of what drives us to write a lyric, which is kind of how the judge character came into being. A personification of injustice in our world. Getting back to the ‘Cruel Magic’ cover art and what it represents, I cannot think of a more extreme example of ‘justice’ gone wrong. These witch trials which actually took place 300 years ago.
Can you tell a bit more about the recordings as I read you consciously went for first takes and you left in mistakes to keep it all real in a way. What role did the reissue of ‘Court In The Act’ have to do with this?
Hmm, yes I guess Listenable Records’ re-issue of ‘Court In The Act’ did bring it briefly back to the public’s attention. Given that I hadn’t listened to that album in over 30 years because I’d found it such a painful experience, I was surprised at how much it resonated with me when a metal club DJ in Brooklyn played the whole of side one because I was there. I think it was the entire experience of hearing it with new ears and seeing how people reacted to the music right there in front of me. It was kind of an epiphany. I think I had become desensitized to modern music and the manner in which it’s recorded. The sound of it. Little of it seems real anymore which is hardly surprising since 99% of studios are essentially run by computers. Bands play to a ‘grid’ now and everything you record can be edited and corrected artificially. It’s like the audio equivalent of Photoshop! I talked to the band about this before we began the sessions for the new record, and they seemed to feel the same way. Spin any metal record from the last ten years then put on Raven’s first album - there is no contest. The Raven LP is just a way more exciting listen, you get the feeling it could all fall apart at any second. And by the same token ‘Court In The Act’ was utterly feral, uncontrolled and recklessly performed. If we made it to the end of a song then that was the take! It sounded great to us at the time. We didn’t care about any mistakes or what the production was like. We just wanted to get it done and released as soon as possible. I’m not saying that’s how we made ‘Cruel Magic’ but we definitely wanted to evoke that spirit by taking the macro view – judge a performance by how the whole thing makes you feel rather than zooming in on individual errors. We wanted to give ourselves and our listeners a flavour of how it used to feel.
In the song ‘My Prophetic Soul’ you can hear some percussion added, which is pretty cool. Who came up with that idea and who actually played it?
That was pretty much a last minute addition. All the recording was completed and myself & Dave Curle (the engineer) were sitting listening back over everything. When it got to that section in ‘Prophetic’ I asked him to stop the tape because it seemed like something was missing. He checked it but all the parts we’d recorded were still there. Still I felt it was crying out for some kind of counterpoint. I tried overdubbing some guitar stabs played between the drum beats but it sounded like fucking Reggae! Then Dave said bongo drums. We both laughed a bit then stopped and looked at each other because the studio actually has bongos. I suggested that Dave record himself playing them to see how it sounded and if it worked we’d get Sean to come in and do it for real. Well it so happened that Sean was on vacation and we were on a deadline to begin mixing. And of course the thing Dave had played sounded awesome already to my ears. So that’s what happened there!
Before the album you released a sort of teaser in the form of a 7” single. It contains the album song ‘The Doomsday Clock’, but also a non-album track entitled ‘Catacombs’. Did you record more extra songs besides the 10 that ended up on the album and this bonus song?
Yes. We recorded an instrumental piece lasting 1m 40s which was going to be the intro to the album. For various reasons we elected not to put it on there but it is certainly included on the box set bonus disc of Cruel Magic along with other unreleased demos etc.
It’s also your second single besides the self-financed ‘Kiss Of Death’ 7” from 1982. What’s your opinion on the format and the fact Metal Blade decided to release this?
I adore vinyl! As a consumer of music it is such fun. And certainly on tour in America vinyl outsells CD by two to one. Metal Blade told us right from the beginning they’d like to bring out a 7 inch vinyl single two months before the album release, which we thought was a great idea. We’ve never had a Satan single since Kiss Of Death 1982! Then we had to choose which song to use. We all thought ‘Doomsday Clock’ would work the best, because of its strong vocal melody and the fact that it’s under 4 minutes.
Talking about Metal Blade, this actually is a change too. The previous 2 albums came out through Listenable Records. So, was your contract over with them? And I think Metal Blade did the US release of ‘Court In The Act’ in 1984. So you go a long way back.
Absolutely. And you are correct, Metal Blade released ‘Court In The Act’ in the US way back in 1984. They are part of our past. So our previous recording contract with Listenable had ended with the release of ‘Atom By Atom’ and once we‘d finished the touring schedule at the end of 2016 we started thinking about whether to renew with Listenable or look for something else. I think if we’d been given the choice of any label in the metal market we’d all have picked Metal Blade but they seemed to have gotten so big now that we didn’t even know how to approach them. Anyway we decided to get busy writing music and making demos then about six months later we took on a new manager from the US and the first thing he said to us was ”which label do guys want to go with?“ and of course we said Metal Blade. He said ”Okay leave that to me“. The next thing we knew we were being offered a three album deal with excellent terms! The label gave us a schedule of exactly how everything would unfold this year prior to releasing the new record, including an official music video which Satan has never done in the past. It looks like the touring schedule will also be bigger and better this time.
I guess you’ll be on the road soon to support the release of a new album. A US-tour has been booked and I think you (at this point) have 2 European festival appearances lined-up. Any plans for a European club tour later on?
Yes, there are some European dates in the pipeline for November & December which at this point I’m not at liberty to announce but it’s all so exciting!
Is it still easy to combine Satan with the other bands you’re involved with? Brian also recently released a new album with Blitzkrieg. Skyclad is also still active. How do you manage?
Well, to be honest we have to micro-manage every commitment. Cross check personally with the guys in the other bands in case they have anything in the pipeline that may be not have been announced. But it has worked out okay so far. And also at this time of our lives of course we all have families, mortgages, car payments etc. And as much as we’ve toured with Satan there is another level we need to reach before we can consider giving up our regular work commitments. It’s so much more complicated than it was when we were 21 because the only thing we had in abundance was time. Luckily we are all pretty flexible in the amount of time we can devote to touring – three of us are our own bosses and the other two work on flexi-time for their employers. Speaking personally I am lucky enough to be a full time musician back home. Playing guitar is my life.
Right, that’s all as far as I’m concerned. Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, to our followers in Holland I’d like to say a huge THANK YOU on behalf of the whole band. Nowhere has given us more support than you guys since the early 80s and we got our first break with Roadrunner Records by touring Holland. And still to this day the crowds are amazing every time we play there. So keep the faith and we’ll see you very soon!