Exclusive Interview: Vocalist Martin van Drunen of Hail of Bullets
Hail of Bullets’ upcoming III: The Rommel Chronicles is a history-fueled crunchmaster of an album. Lots of phrases like “old school” and “classic death” have been flying around to describe it. Yet, interestingly enough, it has an academic and meaningful side, definitely juxtaposed by its outright brutality. For that we can give special thanks to vocalist Martin Van Drunen’s gutter-thriving vocals and fascination with World War II. Chronicles is Hail of Bullets’ third studio album and constitutes a formidable post-sophomore effort, especially after On Divine Winds. Killer record, by the way.
And so I had the wonderful chance to chat with van Drunen! He touched on the band’s dispersed yet collective writing process, the nestling of Chronicles into the European metal scene at large, how the band has progressed since Winds, and the aforementioned lyrical focus on World War II history. III: The Rommel Chronicles drops on October 29 via Metal Blade. Spin “Pour le Mérite” and an album teaser in the meantime.
Just to start, I wanted to hear from you if you had gotten any good reception back from other bands or other people around? What’s the critical feedback that you’ve gotten on your album?
People were a little skeptical after doing two good albums already. Most people say that the third album is really crucial. People are saying that it’s better than the last.
How would you say that you’ve changed since On Divine Winds? I’ve been rocking both albums, and I do like the new one better. It’s a lot grittier and it has more punch to it. How do you think you’ve grown since On Divine Winds?
We kind of mixed the first two albums together and came up with The Rommel Chronicles. When I listen to it, to me, it’s like a mix of the first two. Of Frost and War was completely raw and On Divine Winds was a little bit more polished. This one has both of those qualities. We worked really hard on the production of it. I think it’s a good capture of the songs in general. To me, I think it’s a bit more catchy when it comes to the songs, but it’s a little bit more accessible in a way as well while still being very brutal. We haven’t changed anything in the style we play.
I’ve been hearing a lot of “old school” being thrown around – that you guys have this old school feel. What do you feel about old school? What does that mean to you in terms of the album and in terms of your own personal style?
Personally I find the whole terminology of “old school” to be bullshit because the kind of death metal that we make is what we’ve always made – not just in Hail of Bullets, but the bands that we were in before. So you release a couple of albums and a couple of years later you’re all of a sudden old school. I haven’t changed. I’ve always done it. To me it’s just death metal, and maybe the new kids should call themselves “new school” instead of calling us old school. [Laughs] I don’t know. Thing is, all of a sudden people came up with this kind of thing and call us an old school death metal band. If that’s how people can identify themselves with it, fine with me. People call us old school death metal, but to me we’re just playing the way we always do. Hail of Bullets sounded the same the last album. It’s just a kind of style we prefer and a kind of style that we want to play.
What’s your writing process like with the whole band and with your lyrics? Maybe you can touch on how it is for you to write? Do you guys sit and plan stuff out or do you guys throw ideas around real quick and go from there? How does that work for you?
The way that it starts all the time is that we never meet when we write an album. This coming weekend we’re going to rehearse a song for the first time all together. The way that it starts is that the guys come up with some riffing and they record them at home. Then we get some drum stuff with it so that there is a rhythm that belongs to it. Then we decide which one we’re going to pick. Sometimes even Eddie [Warby, drums] comes up with a full song. Then we have to decide what needs to be done on this one, do we need to still work on that riff, are we going to use it a couple of more times, or if we want something done longer. When we finally have a pick of the songs that we’re going to take I created a chronology of the album so I can work on each song. The boys know before they already work on something what the lyrical content will be so that they can visualize the things in the songs. We work in a visual way, and it takes quite a while.
I definitely want to touch on your interest in World War II and how that plays into the album? Do you ever just have song ideas in terms of lyrics written up in your brain, and then you correspond and then go from there? Do you pull out random stuff of what you see in World War II history? Explain how that works with your World War II lyrical focus.
When I start with anything, I have this vocal kind of concert in my head. I just tell the guys that this is what I’m going to write about. Then I’ll have a couple of books that I read about it. Once I start to really filter the information from the books… after you read a book you don’t remember the entire thing, you have to study and write things down. So I start to write down and explain to the guys what I have in mind.
With this album, for example, we start with him in the First World War, then there’s a kind of a break until World War II and then later on we get to normalcy and then his death. There are lots of other things I could have picked out, but an album is only 10 or 12 songs, so you have to be picky. You filter the best songs that work together. Once all the songs are all finished and I have the vocal arrangements for all them, that’s when everything is done. Musically, the album is already recorded. I prefer to work on a finished song so I don’t get the surprise of “oh we changed it”. Then later on, I meet up with Eddie for the vocal parts — we do all the vocal parts together because he has some good ideas — and after that we start recording the vocals.
What is it about World War II that interests you? Do you have a fascination with the politics or is it more with the horrors of war? What is your personal focus on that?
It’s basically the whole, incredible full-scale event. It’s the last war where there was a really large scale battlefield. On the global scale, of course you still had the Korean War and the Vietnam War, but the immense battles that took place in World War II were full scale. That’s something that really grips me. There were all these political things and the changes after. It was the war with the biggest impact on the whole world. That’s what still interests and fascinates me currently. There is so much information and so many books written on World War II, there’s still all kinds of analysis and stuff coming out, and it’s still not over in a way – especially after the Soviets opened their archives, there was a lot of information coming from that part also. You think that you know everything [but you don’t].
Do your band mates share your interest in World War II or are they more focused on the music?
Paul is, in a way. He has some books, and Eddie watches some things, but I’m the one who is really fascinated with it. Then again, I’m the one who writes the lyrics. They always ask me what it’s all about and then we talk about it and have discussions about it.
I have one last question and it’s more like a general geography kind of thing. I guess this could play into the World War II theme as well because it was a world event and every city in Europe has a history. Do you have any specific tour destinations that you guys just love or do you have anything to say about where you get the best reception or the best crowds?
That’s a tough one. Everywhere we play the crowds are always fantastic. To me, personally, what I really want to do (with a couple of North American shows) is South America because I’ve never been there. I know the reception there will be a mad house. Places like Japan or China or something like that – places that we’ve never been to before. It doesn’t matter where we play because it’s always like a victory parade or something. [Laughs] Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria are always great to do. The other places are just where I’ve never been. My career is quite long but they’re the desires that I have. When I’m 70 or 80 years old I’ll need a wheelchair to get into space. [Laughs]
We’re thinking of going all the way to the West Coast because that’s something that we want to do. We hope that we can give all Americans a really good show. We’ll do our best. Thanks everyone for the support, and thank you.