MARTIN VAN DRUNEN FROM ASPHYX: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
If you like death metal, than the new Asphyx album, Deathhammer (coming February 27 from Century Media — watch the video for the title track at Brooklyn Vegan), is a must-purchase. You might as well pre-order the sucker now. Why settle for old school death metal imitators when the masters are still making incredible music? The album has it all: fast, unrelenting tracks like “Reign Of The Brute;” slow, driving songs like “Minefield,” and riffs aplenty.
The album also features another stellar performance from Martin van Drunen, arguably the best death metal vocalist ever (it’s him or Obituary’s John Tardy).
The death metal career man and beer enthusiast shows no signs of age or road weariness on this album; he sounds just as furious as he did when he sang “Dehydration” for Pestilence in the early 1990s. Despite his intensity, van Drunen is one of the funniest and most laid back guys playing music that’s essentially about killing people in horrific ways. He talked to MetalSucks from the Netherlands about the new album and how he almost picked up bass guitar again.
Your last album was pretty well received, but after listening to Deathhammer I think you’ve regained your footing even more.
I think the big difference between Death… The Brutal Way and Deathhammer is Paul [Baayens, guitar]. He had to replace Eric [Daniels, original guitarist] and his kind of riffing. That’s not easy to do. Paul acts like a tough guy and won’t say when something is bothering him. But he did have a burden on his shoulders. People wanted to hear the songs on Death… The Brutal Way and it helped Paul get more laid back. He was way more relaxed on this album. He was able to deliver the riffing. And then we found Alwin (Zuur, bassist) and we now have the lineup we’ve always wanted. Things are perfect at the moment. Asphyx is a band with a soul. That may sound dumb for a death metal band. But I think it’s true. When we started writing these songs we already thought we could top Death… The Brutal Way. I think we did it if I may say so.
Deathhammer doesn’t sound like a retread but it does have the feel of The Rack and your early albums. There’s no hesitation right from the first track.
All the riffs got a big cheer in the studio. We were just like “we got another one” with each riff. It’s like fired up machine gun of riffs, and not just the fast songs. The slower songs are also really heavy. I don’t think there’s a weak song on this damn thing. We do what we can do best in this style. Asphyx has always played a style between slow and up-tempo. This time, we’ve tried to take that to perfection.
Shortly before recording we worked on the opening riff on “Vespa Crabro” and we didn’t like it anymore. We wanted it to be heavier. Then Alwin [Zuur, bassist] came up with an idea that was better, his first riff in Asphyx. We usually keep songs the way they are, but not this time. I think it helped increase cooperation and maybe we’ll all be even more involved on the next album with the riffs.
When you switch from Hail of Bullets to Asphyx, is it liberating to sort of write whatever you want?
With Asphyx you can tackle any death metal topic you want, just throw them in a big melting pot: funny, serious, true, science fiction. You just write stories. With the Bullets it’s nice and very fulfilling to work on historical concepts and to read and learn things. But it makes it tough. It takes a lot of time. With Asphyx things go a lot quicker. With Bullets on the last album I had writer’s block for a while. With Asphyx, I don’t get it. I can just think up things and chuck ideas when I want. With Bullets it has to fit perfectly with the concept. Asphyx is easier but both are fun. At the same time I do both with a lot of passion.
No one is going to call you on an inaccuracy in an Asphyx song but they might in a song about World War II.
Well, look at the [Deathhammer] song “When The Magma Mammoth Rises.” You can’t just talk all bullshit. It can really happen. Scientists know a volcano in Yellowstone Park will burst. They don’t know when but they do know it will be a mega catastrophe. When I heard about that it gripped me and I started reading about it. I wanted to know the facts and what may happen after such an outburst. If I write about reality, I write about reality.
Asphyx seems like a band that could make a song about baking a cake sound good.
[laughs] Maybe so! No one knows this but we did a split with Thanatos. We wanted to record a song by a band called Majesty. So we did a song called “Bestial Vomit” [below] and there were no lyrics anywhere. I tried to listen to what the vocalist was singing but it sounded like he was just going “raaar.” So I wrote some completely bogus Dutch lyrics and everything rhymed. It’s complete bollocks. It’s absolute crap lyrics. And then I sing the words “Bestial Vomit” in Dutch. That was just a joke but no one ever came up to me and said “what the hell are you singing there?” [laughs]. Not even Dutch people! [laughs]
You mentioned that Paul found his groove on Deathhammer. How did you meet Alwin and what did he add?
We just weren’t satisfied with Wannes’ [Gubbels] bass performance. He did well on stage but he didn’t really fit. There started to be two camps in the band and you shouldn’t work like that. We were more or less kind of desperate; we needed someone who could fit in.
Bob [Bagchus, drums] works at a printing company that does tee -shirts, stickers and caps. Alwin placed an order and Bob came to his house with like 1,000 stickers. All of a sudden these two started talking. When they were talking Bob e-mailed me and said: “I think we found him.”
We sort of knew him from all the concerts in the area, especially because he’s very tall. He’s a very involved metalhead. We gave him some songs and just decided to jam together. His bass sound blew us away. He was the missing link and things immediately stared to work better. There was no grumbling on stage. On Deathhammer he knew exactly what sound he wanted with his bass. I think this album has the best bass sound on any Asphyx album. The guitars on Asphyx are central but if you took out the bass here you’d really be missing something.
You met him the old school way rather than auditioning guys on YouTube.
Right now Asphyx is probably the biggest death metal band in our country. If we started auditioning you’d just get a bunch of guys trying to get with a bigger band and that’s not what we want. We wanted someone from our region. We live in the Eastern Netherlands. It’s a little bit like Kentucky or Mississippi. People from Amsterdam call us farmers and rednecks and we have our own dialect. When we found out that Alwin came from here that was a bonus.
If you start auditioning you never know what comes up. People may act different and a year later you find out they are bloody assholes. We just knew what kind of guy we needed before he was even in the band.
Asphyx is a band that would fall apart without a strong rhythm section.
Definitely. That’s why it was so important. It was so important that for a while I was thinking of taking on bass duties. I’d rather focus on being a vocalist and a frontman. I don’t really want to do bass and vocals again but I was thinking I might have to. We couldn’t have kept things going they way they were.
I can’t see you performing these days with a bass guitar in hand.
Well, some people still ask me about the bass even though I’ve only been a frontman for years. I like to be able to interact with the crowd and focus on one thing. I’d rather focus on one thing at a time and try to do it the best I can.
When I think about your bass situation it reminds me of Obituary. They lost their longtime bassist and they resolved it by hiring Terry Butler, who they had known for ages.
I saw Obituary in the Netherlands. The last time I saw Terry here was when he was in Massacre. It was a special kind of moment. Terry hasn’t changed anything over the years. He fits really well in Obituary and I’m happy for them. I still think Obituary is the best thing coming out of Florida right now. They’ve been doing a great job since, what, 1987?
It’s interesting that the Netherlands produces so much death metal. Why? It seems mellow, there’s less crime, people ride bikes everywhere, and marijuana is basically legal.
In the Netherlands, people do ride a lot of bikes and smoke weed, but they probably smoke it less than in the United States because it’s legal. It’s not even attractive to me. Asphyx is not a weed-smoking band at all. We like to drink beer. I like to get off stage at 10 at night because I can still drink. We’re just normal guys, working people who go hard all week and then want to have beer at a football match. We’re not into drugs or scandals. I did things when I was a kid but that all happened before I was even in bands. Now I just stick to a couple of beers and get drunk once and a while.
I think the Netherlands was one of the first countries that picked up on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. That’s what got me into this. Venom was huge. The first country in Europe where Metallica was popular was the Netherlands. There’s a tradition here, a strong heavy metal tradition. I’m still very influenced by bands like Venom or Metallica or old Slayer. We’ve tried to pass it on to the youngsters and they pick it up. It’s also easy to play shows here. There’s a lot of clubs and there’s always a crowd. And at metal shows people drink a shitload of beer. So for the clubs it’s a good thing to have a metal band play.
To your point that metal is good business, when Asphyx first played the Maryland Deathfest in 2009 the venue ran out of beer at one point.
That could have been my personal consumption (laughs). I noticed, because we had to hit other bars, even the guys in bands. We had to go to Irish pubs down the streets.
Did you know that Deathhammer was also a Norwegian black metal band?
It’s a pure coincidence. I had this name ready right after the last album. No one these days can keep up with everything that comes out in metal. Had I known I wouldn’t have taken the title. But I didn’t. The guys liked the title and thought it suited us.
When did you decide to grow the beard?
I just get lazy. I hate shaving and my girlfriend likes it. Some guys also told me it looked brutal in pictures (laughs). Every two months it starts to itch and food will get in it and I’ll shave it and grow it again.
In the promo photos you look like a proper American mountain man.
[laughs] That’s not too bad, actually! We’re hillbillies anyway. Someone actually said I look like Zakk Wylde.
If there was a death metal version of American Idol and you were a judge, who else would you choose?
Oh, God. [Obituary vocalist] John Tardy, definitely. He’s a very original singer with his own style. And then Eric from Asphyx, someone who knows what good riffing is all about.