Interview by Robert Cavuoto
West coast metal veterans Metal Church will release From the Vault on April 10, 2020, via Rat Pak Records. This latest release is a special edition compilation album that features 14 previously unreleased tracks from the Mike Howe era, which include some newly recorded studio tracks including a redux of the band’s fan-favorite classic “Conductor.” The remaining tracks are compiled from various recordings in the band’s history and include five B-sides from 2018’s Damned if You Do recording sessions, cover songs, and two live tracks. The bands consist of Mike Howe [vocals], Kurdt Vanderhoof [guitars], Stet Howland [drums], Rick Van Zandt [guitars] and Steve Unger [Bass]. Copies of their new CD can be obtained here: www.ratpakrecordsamerica.com/metal-church
I caught up with vocalist Mike Howe to talk about From the Vault, the inspiration behind some of Metal Church’s songs, and what lies ahead about a possible new live album.
Robert Cavuoto: How important is it for bands to release new music to the fans in these difficult times with the virus outbreak?
Mike Howe: Well, our release timing was not coordinated with the virus [laughing]. There is some scary shit out there so it’s nice to give people some music to enjoy in these uncertain times. Creating new music is very important to Kurdt and me. That’s why I came back to the band; to release new music. That’s what gets us excited. We love the cycle of creating, playing it live to the fans, and then going back to make more. It keeps us in the game.
Robert Cavuoto: You have some tracks that were never released; can you share when they were recorded?
Mike Howe: Basically, all new songs have been around for four years, which were created between CDs and tours. When Kurdt and I are out touring and not spending enough time being creative, we would sit down and write. We would take what we came up with and put them in the vault. When we are ready to write for a new CD, we look at what we had. We could write as many as 15-20 songs; then, we pick the best ones to put on the CD. The ones that didn’t get used, we would revisit down the road. I think fans may like to hear some of these leftover songs. We haven’t done a cover tune in my tenor with the band since “Highway Star” on the first album. Kurdt and I aren’t huge cover band guys, but we decided to give it a try. We thought it was fun and through we would put them out there as well.
Robert Cavuoto: What is the criteria you used to determine what songs will make it on a CD?
Mike Howe: Sometimes, we go by a feel or vibe. In our process, we try to whittle things down to favorite songs, but we both have to agree that we like them to be on a CD. It’s not that we didn’t like these for some reason, they just weren’t as liked in our minds as the ones that went on the CD.
Robert Cavuoto: Were the unreleased tracks 100% complete or did the band have to do some work on them?
Mike Howe: We did some work on the new songs like “Dead on the vine,” “For No Reason,” and “Above the Madness.”
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about redoing “Conductor?”
Mike Howe: Joe O’Brien from our record company dubbed me as the Conductor through Facebook over the last four years. He put in a request for us to redo the song. I did it for him as he is a great guy that works hard for us. I couldn’t say no to him!
Robert Cavuoto: “Dead on the Vine” is a perfect example of Metal Church’s ability to combine melody and power. Can you tell me about the origins of that song?
Mike Howe: I appreciate you saying that. I’m listening to that one a lot lately. Sometimes when songs don’t get used for a CD, we tend to forget about them. That was a song that we went back to, did some overdubs, and I’m really happy with the way it came out. It’s a song with a heavy Kurdt riff and then I have my melody going over it. It’s heavy yet melodic. When I can listen to one of our songs over-and-over and still get excited about it, it makes me very happy [laughing]! Chris Collier, the Wizard, mixed it and did a really good job. As far as the meaning behind it; we never like to tell fans because we want the listener to decide as everyone’s view of it is different. We like heavy metal lyrics that are thought-provoking. When the phrase “Dead on the Vine” popped out of my mouth, I thought it was a cool metal saying. We just reached down into that Rock & Roll angst and frustration as we do with most of our music is and just let rip.
Robert Cavuoto: There a few other remixed songs, what’s involved with doing those?
Mike Howe: I think the goal is to give the fans a different twist on a song.
Robert Cavuoto: Were the cover songs initially going to be used for a project?
Mike Howe: It really depended on how they came out. Kurdt came to us and said to each pick a song that we would like to cover. We thought we would give it a shot and see how it goes. If they didn’t work out, we wouldn’t release them. I think we did four but only liked two of them. The two picked were “Black Betty,” which I suggested and “Green Eyed Lady” which Stet Howland suggested.
Robert Cavuoto: You guys did a fiery version of “Black Betty.”
Mike Howe: We don’t think about doing covers often, but when we got into the idea, I wanted a song that I could attack aggressively. Tommy Ledbetter, who wrote the song, was a blues artist that I known from way back when. I thought we could really rock it. We had a lot of fun with it.
Robert Cavuoto: Are there any more songs in the vault?
Mike Howe: I would think there is. There are always songs on Kurdt’s computer, but I couldn’t say for sure. When he finds a song from the vault, he sends me an audio file. Typically the song has a basic structure and I listen to it to try and find a melody. I’ll make suggestions on modifying it and then we will piece things together to build a song. On occasion, he will send me a song that wasn’t complete or missing something, and we talk about revisiting it.
Robert Cavuoto: What is the virus’s impact on touring for the band?
Mike Howe: I’m not sure if it was fate, but we decided to take this year off and work on new materials. We had been touring for four years straight and want to take a break to get a fresh perspective. Kurdt has his prog-rock band Presto Ballet his that he had neglected and wanted to revisit. They were booked on Cruise to the Edge which ended up getting canceled. Unfortunately for a lot of bands out there they had to cancel as well, it was very sad.
Robert Cavuoto: You mentioned you are working on new material, how far along have you gotten?
Mike Howe: Not very far as we are focusing on releasing some live stuff that we have from Japan. We were planning to get together after Kurdt does his prog stuff. We are taking it day-by-day.