Interview by: Robert Cavuoto
Live Photos by: Zenae Zukowski
Metal Church will be releasing their 12th studio album entitled, Damned If You Do via Rat Pak Records on December 7, 2018. This is the follow up to their 2016 album XI, which saw the return of legendary front-man Mike Howe and reached #57 on the Billboard Top 200. Damned If You Do is one of the band’s most aggressive CDs to date and fueled by powerful tracks like “By the Numbers” and “Rot Away.” The bands consist of Mike Howe [vocals], Kurdt Vanderhoof [guitars], Stet Howland [drums], Rick Van Zandt [guitars] and Steve Unger [Bass]. Copies of the new CD can be obtained here: https://www.ratpakrecordsamerica.com/metal-church
I caught up with vocalist Mike Howe to talk about the creation of Damned If You Do, the inspiration behind many of Metal Church’s songs, and what the band has stood for over the past 30 years.
Robert Cavuoto: In 2016 I spoke to Kurdt about your return to the band and was he excited to be back to the more melodic side of the music from your era. Tell about that ability to merge metal with melody and its importance to Metal Church’s sound.
Mike Howe: It’s not something we think about. I come in with a guttural and instinctual feeling towards the music. The way we write is Kurdt comes up with the song structures; about 20 songs for each CD. Then we go to his home studio where he plays me songs and asks which ones move me. From there I start belting out whatever melodies that come to mind. We always try to keep it natural and organic. That’s how it works for us, if you are true to your emotions I think it translates to the fans.
Robert Cavuoto: “Rot Away” is a perfect example of that combination; can you tell me about the origins of that song?
Mike Howe: It’s a heavy metal angst driven song turned to eleven. The purpose of metal is to get it out, scream it out, and then feel better about your life. When I go into the studio, the lyrical ideas begin to come to mind, and that inspiration for that song just comes out. “Rot Away” was one of those phrases that came out. If I didn’t scream out enough words that make sense, then we backfill it with lyrics [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: Is there a lot of pressure to come up with ideas on the spot versus taking more time to listen to the music and develop the lyrics and melody.
Mike Howe: I don’t like to over think things. Then I’m using my brain instead of my heart and soul. In our genre, I like music like that. I just want to get it out of me.
Robert Cavuoto: When writing, tell me about what inspired you musically when you started and what inspires you now?
Mike Howe: When I was starting out, I was in a cover band which helped shape me. We played songs by my idols like Rob Halford in Judas Priest and Bon Scott in AC/DC. They were my two of my idols with Rob’s power and range and Bon’s attitude. I always try to combine those two things. I didn’t get into songwriting until I met Kurdt as he is an amazing songwriter. I don’t consider myself a great songwriter I just consider myself a guy who sings out great melodies. Kurdt assists in finishing the lyrics, and we work as a good team.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you think that you captured the band’s signature sound on this CD?
Mike Howe: I think we captured the sound of Mike Howe and KurdtVanderhoof writing Metal Church music together. We have always had that chemistry from day one. We are lucky to have it. We have a lot of fun, and it doesn’t feel like work. That is why I’m here.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me how Damned If You Do compares to XI as I assume you are more integrated now?
Mike Howe: Sure, I’m a little more settled in and comfortable even though I was pretty comfortable before. You gel a little more like a well-worn shoe [laughing]. Kurdt was coming up with some heavy riffs for this CD. That set the tone for our aggressiveness.
Robert Cavuoto: Was there any learnings from that last CD that was applied to this CD?
Mike Howe: We don’t like to over think, and we still approached the songwriting the same way. I can’t say anything changed expect we have to have a CD that is equally or better in quality from the last one. If that’s not the case, it’s just not worth doing. I have always stood by that. That is what brought me back to the band. When I spoke with Kurdt about rejoining the band, I told him I’m not here for nostalgia. I’m very proud of what we did in the past, but I’m not here because of it. I’m here because I want to write quality new metal. I live in the moment and think about the future, not the past. If the day comes that we feel we are writing materials that we feel is not that good or not as good as the last CD than that might be the end.
Robert Cavuoto: What was it like to meet Rob Halford after singing his songs while in a cover band?
Mike Howe: It was a huge highlight of my career; not only meeting him but being on the road with him. I can recall one time leaving the dressing room to go the stage and him telling me that he just got done listening to The Human Factor and how it got him pumped up to go on stage! I was like Wow! My favorite story that I like to tell about Rob is when I went back to my hometown of Detroit to play an outdoor area, my whole family came out to see the show. My mother knowing Rob was a big influence asked if she could meet him. I told after the show at the meet and greet Ill introduce you to him. After our set, I came back out to the tent where my family had a big table. I saw Rob and asked if he would take a photo with my Mom. He said, “Let me tell you something Mike, your Mom is just like my Mom, and she already came over and got her photo with me.” [laughing] I thanked Rob and went over to the table and saw my Mom with her head down looking like a little girl who got her hand caught in the cookie jar. It was so awesome.
Robert Cavuoto: How does Damned If You Do rate for you personally?
Mike Howe: All the CDs and songs are like children to me, so it is hard to pick a favorite. They are all special in some way so I can’t pick one over the other. They are snapshots of time in my life and trigger memories of that time. I’m grateful for all of them. With that said the newest CD is always favorite! [Laughing]
Robert Cavuoto: Are there any songs from the new CD that you look forward to playing live?
Mike Howe: Yeah, “Damned If You Do” is going to be awesome live and look forward to it. Also “By the Numbers” is another great one. We haven’t started pre-production for the live shows, but that will be a lot of fun when it happens.
Robert Cavuoto: What has Metal Church always stood for?
Mike Howe: Looking from the outside in at the Metal Church’s logo and as a brand, I think it stands for integrity and always giving the fans our best. With Metal Church that is what you are going to get. The legacy of Kurdt over the last 30 years is impressive, and I’m lucky to be a part of that history!