This interview was scheduled to be published in issue #96 however sinister forces were at work and it couldn't be included. However, here it is for your reading pleasure now.
Interviewer: Carl Buxton
Powerwolf are one of the leading purveyors of Power Metal in Europe having steadily built up their standing over the last fifteen years. Of course, it helps having an impressively theatrical stage show, but that’s nothing if you haven’t got the songs to back it up in the first place. Fortunately that’s something Powerwolf have in abundance and that’s exactly why their concerts are so popular, the band themselves describing their audiences as their ‘Metal Mass’ - a reference to the religious world-view that features in many of their lyrics. With numerous awards and plaudits, particularly in their German homeland, the band continues to go from strength to strength and have recently released their eighth studio album ‘Call Of The Wild’. As they prepare for their latest European tour, Fireworks talked to main songwriter and guitarist Matthew Greywolf to get an insight into the journey that brought them to this point in time…
You formed Powerwolf with Charles Greywolf in 2003, and your first album ‘Return in Bloodred’ came out two years later. What can you tell us about the formation of the band?
We all had our own things or projects going on, but we always dreamt about creating a band with a very strong concept behind it. At first it wasn’t easy to come up with stuff like that or find the right people to do it, but then we stumbled upon Attila (Dorn, vocals) who really embraced the idea of delivering something very dramatic and visual. It was probably at this point that we actually started to create what would become Powerwolf. Right from the very beginning the overall concept has been about more than just the music, more than just the religious aspect. Our first album was still strongly influenced by the likes of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Mercyful Fate… it wasn’t really a Satanic thing back then. I remember there were lots of discussions and improvisation about the concept behind the band during the making of the album. For me it wasn’t until the second album ‘Lupus Dei’ that we really found our identity and strongest trademarks.
In the early years when you first formed as a band, did you play original songs or cover songs?
We never played covers songs. At our first rehearsal together, the first song we wrote was ‘Mr. Sinister’. We never wanted to play anyone else’s songs, we always wanted our own project, and I remember the first songs we played were those that appeared on the first album. We’ve always been about that vision and nothing else.
The ‘corpse paint’ makeup is an integral part of the Powerwolf brand, was that inspiration that you took from pioneers like Mercyful Fate and King Diamond?
Definitely! Funnily enough though, none of the musicians were really into it at first, it was only when we started thinking about the visuals we wanted to create that things changed. Back in the day Attila was involved in a lot of theatre so it was natural for him to put on makeup, but when he mentioned it we were like “No, we’re Metal, we don’t want to wear makeup!’’ But he kind of convinced us that if we wanted to have stuff like armour on stage and other stage props, theatrical makeup would really help to enhance the visuals. But it wasn’t until the first interviews we did for the debut album when people asked us about it – “Is it a tribute to KISS?” or whatever – that we realised ‘Okay, there’s a serious connection as well, but actually it’s just theatre.’
Rammstein aside, there aren’t too many German Metal bands out there making waves internationally with a show as theatrical as yours; did you think that maybe it would be a good niche area for you to develop something that was unique?
No, not really. It wasn’t that we approached it thinking of it as a business, it was just something we wanted to do, so we just did it. [Laughs] Actually, when we first came up with the idea everybody said “Nah, don’t do it, nobody will like it.” In the beginning I would say there were a lot of puzzled faces as people questioned what we were doing, so the plan was never to create some kind of niche thing. We just went for it, but, speaking of German bands with strong visuals, Running Wild did it for many years.
You mean with the Pirate theme?
Yeah... in the early nineties they had a pretty visual show. I remember I was about 13 years old or something and I had seen many of their early nineties tours; I was just overwhelmed at what they did. It was probably one of those moments where I thought ‘Well, I wanna do that!’ The other main influence in terms of delivering huge shows obviously, is Iron Maiden. One of the first LPs I got when I started listening to Metal was ‘Live After Death’. You had all these larger than life pictures of the stage props and everything, and I was like ‘That’s the dream!’
You said earlier that ‘Lupus Dei’ was where you really started to find out how you wanted to move forward with the band. Both that and the debut were recorded in Sweden with Fredrik Nordström; why did you chose to go to Sweden to record as opposed to working in Germany with a German producer?
That’s a very good question. There were a couple of albums he did with Dream Evil that I really liked – obviously that’s his band – but I also liked what he did on the ‘Mantra III’ album from Spiritual Beggars. To me he just had this attitude with his production that I thought was exactly what we needed, and when we first contacted him we soon found out that he was a really creative person too, which was also exactly what we needed! We didn’t need a producer who told us to come down to how he thinks he is supposed to record us; we wanted somebody who would actually jump on the train and get crazy and stupid at the same time… that was just totally fresh. We then worked with him on our third album ‘Bible Of The Beast’, although some of that was recorded at Kohlekeller Studio in Germany.
You produced a limited edition LP box set, ’Trinity In Black’, that had those first three albums on black vinyl, plus a bonus, four track EP on red vinyl that included a couple of covers (Armored Saint and Running Wild)… was that an idea that came from Metal Blade who were your label at the time?
‘Trinity In Black’ has a fun story to it, although it’s really a very simple story. The truth is that the albums never came out on LP back then, and since some of us are really collector nerds, we really wanted them on LP. So when they – I don’t remember the name of the label but it wasn’t Metal Blade – contacted us and asked if they could get a licence for an LP, we were like “Yes. Yes please!” It was basically simple logic; there was no business group involved, it was just summing up the early years, and for us it was like ‘Oh we finally get an LP, that’s great!’ The Running Wild cover on the EP was actually one of the very few ideas that didn’t come from within the band. It was a Metal Blade birthday bash... I think it was like thirty years, twenty five years or something. The idea was some of the bands on the label would play a live show and cover other Metal Blade bands. When they came up with the idea we’d just been on tour so we didn’t really have the time to check possibilities or come up with ideas ourselves. So they just sent us this song and said “Wouldn’t that be a good idea?” And we just did it; it was one of the most spontaneous projects we ever did I think, even though none of us was sober when we actually recorded it [laughs], but it was great fun. Usually nobody outside the band is ever allowed to come up with any sort of ideas because we really stick to what we have in mind, but that was one of the times when we’ve been open minded and said “Okay let’s do that”… it was good fun.
So do you think you’ll be open to similar ideas in the future?
Never say never I suppose… but in the past we’ve always kept that side of things strictly within the band. Nobody outside the band – record companies or management – will ever listen to demos or anything; they’ll only get to hear the albums once they’re finished. That’s definitely nobody’s business but the band, but then again, sometimes you miss out on ideas or creative aspects that someone has in mind… so yeah, never say never.
It’s interesting you should say that there’s no outside influences allowed because in the past so many bands have had outside writers forced upon them. They had their studios chosen for them, they had the producer chosen for them. It’s refreshing to hear that you are completely autonomous and you stick within the Powerwolf bubble.
I’m pretty much convinced that this is the only way to keep your vision. If we had listened to what people said in years gone by, we would never have called the band Powerwolf. All the time we said “Fuck you, that’s what we do. Like it or lump it!” We don’t compromise on that. We are pretty much a do-it-yourself band, still heavily involved with every aspect. We create the stage show ourselves, we do all the props and the merchandise. To me this is the way to make sure that it’s Powerwolf and not some sort of thing built around us.
Your ‘Blood Of The Saints’ album, released in July 2011, was the first album to chart in your homeland, a real moment to be proud.
Yeah, nobody expected it. We got a phone call saying it had charted and we thought it was a joke… and then we got heavily drunk! But yeah, ‘Blood Of The Saints’ made it to #23 which at the time was pretty sensational.
You did some recordings for that album in the Deutschherrenkapelle chapel in Saarbrücken, that must’ve really been quite an experience?
Yes it was… and it wasn’t that easy for a Metal band. I mean, officially we’ve been a ‘Pop’ band when we’ve asked [laughs], and it’s always only ever been in churches that were not in religious use anymore; churches that just host public events and occasions. That’s really important since we are a band that strongly plays with religious symbolism… and that includes irony, sarcasm and such like. But we never want to step on people’s toes in terms of upsetting them because we know that religion is something really important, something really private. Nevertheless, we just call and say “Hey, we are Powerwolf, we are a Heavy Metal band which is quite cool, and we’re on Sony Records.” The Deutschherrenkapelle is in our home town and it’s one of the oldest chapels in the area. Quite a few years ago I remember there was some kind of exhibition of paintings there and I really fell in love with the place – it creates history, it’s really a very, very atmospheric place so I always dreamt about one day being able to record something there. And actually it worked out very well and we were lucky to be working there with choirs – a pretty crazy event!
After that you had the massive success of ‘Preachers Of The Night’ (a play on words from the Kiss classic ‘Creatures Of the Night’), which was a number one album in Germany… quite an amazing achievement for a Metal band. How did you learn it had gone to number one?
Of course it is, I mean, yeah! As you can imagine, when it went to number one it was quite a party… I still remember the hangover! [Laughs] I remember that I got some short message from our manager saying that it might happen, and I thought it was a joke so I didn’t even answer it. Two minutes later he said “It is… it’s number one!” I called him back and said “Fine, that’s a good joke, but what position is it really?” It took a while to realise it was not a joke and that it really was number one. But then again it was a strange feeling as I remember…. you know, when you start a Metal band you don’t do it to become number one in the charts, then suddenly you are number one and you feel like ‘Is it me? Is it real? What did I do wrong?’ [Laughs] I mean, it was pretty good but I must admit I still don’t care too much about chart positions. It’s just a number; to me the moments of real success are if I see people in the first row having a great time or if I see young kids at our shows. I’ve been to shows like that – at my first Metal shows I remember people in the first rows having the time of their lives – that’s success to me. That’s really the moment I want remember for the rest of my life. The chart position… it’s nice, but it’s a number and in a way being a Metal band it’s still like some unreal kind of thing. Chart success is not the reason why we do this, but it shows that’s there’s quite a big fan base and that they really have been waiting to buy the album which is definitely a great achievement.
Moving on to your 2015 album ‘Blessed And Possessed’ once again you worked with Fredrik Nördstrom, although it would be for the last time. Was his input integral to keeping the identity and sound of the band up to that point?
It was probably because he’s never changed and he knew us very well. We are honestly a very strange bunch of people and we realised that a lot of people don’t get our sense of humour. They just don’t get why we act the way we do and why we decide things the way we do, but Fredrik does. He became part of our way of thinking, so it was natural to just continue working with him. But it was actually the recording of ‘Blessed And Possessed’ that changed our thinking. I mean, after so many albums together you don’t question (his) decisions, it’s like “Yeah, let’s do it the same”… not in a basic way, it’s just like we know each other so well that there were no surprises. I absolutely love the production on ‘Blessed And Possessed’, I think it’s one of the best productions we did with Fredrik, but there were no surprises anymore. So that’s why at that point we thought that maybe for the next one we might change the team, just to take us out of our comfort zone a little bit.
After ‘Blessed And Possessed’ you released a couple of live albums; was it always the plan to release a live album at that point, or was it just a case of finding the right moment?
Playing live is the best thing you can do as a band, although that’s strange to say that these days. That’s why we are around, that’s what we love to do. There are people who say that you won’t understand Powerwolf until you’ve seen us play live, so it was clear to us that we would release a live album one day. I think it was 2016 that ‘The Metal Mass’ came out, which was the perfect moment for us. Nowadays some bands release a live album after their debut album which I think is pretty pointless, unless it’s really to capture an exceptional performance or whatever. To me it was always clear that we would wait at least ten years before we would release a live album, and that was just the perfect time to do it.
Was there any touching up done on the album in the studio?
It’s been mixed in the studio definitely, but I think there were some fuck-ups that we actually left there. I remember one of the main shows we recorded for ‘The Metal Mass’ was ‘Masters Of Rock’ in the Czech Republic and there was one moment where I hit one of the pyro tubes we had. It was my mistake, my bad, but I was so emotional that I didn’t care about the fire going on. I was actually quite lucky that it was just a bit of hair that got burnt, but obviously that was one of the moments where I just dropped the guitar and it would be completely useless to release as audio. We’re not purists in this kind of situation. Of course it should be right to keep the atmosphere – without that it’s pretty pointless – but then again, you should also take care of those who haven’t been at the show but buy the album, so you should leave the crap (audio) out of it.
For 2018’s ‘The Sacrament Of Sin’ you changed producers and brought in Jens Bogren. That too was obviously a very successful album, but the video shoot for ‘Fire & Forgive’ caused some controversy? (The video was shot at the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Ścinawka Średnia, Poland, and the band was accused of overstepping the limits in regards to the sacredness of the church itself and violating the trust of the parish priest in charge.)
I can’t even tell you to be honest. First of all, I wasn’t at the shoot. Only Attila and Falk (Maria Schlegel) were in the video and there is a very simple reason for that. We just fucked up the schedule a bit; we extended the mix and two days after the deadline for the mix we had the shooting scheduled. All the flights were booked, but we didn’t change the mix because we went through so many details and stuff that it just took an additional week of mixing, so, the decision was ‘Okay, music first.’ So, for once we were still in the studio extending the mix hence why we weren’t all in the video. So I wasn’t there… but I don’t know about the permission thing. We shot the video with the Krupe13 guys and they had been dealing with all of the permissions. As far as I remember, the setting where the band was involved was not an actual church; it was a set that was built in the studio. I mean, Poland is pretty sensitive about that and as I said earlier, we really try to respect those things. Even though I can’t relate, we still don’t want to purposely violate people’s religious feelings or beliefs.