Interview with HAMMERHEAD
The Band: Hammerhead
The Man: Buzz Elliot (guitars, vocals)
Hammerhead is a British band with a long history. Talking to Buzz Elliot, a long time member, reminds me of that kind of professor in the University, the wise one, when he speaks you just can listen and learn, and enjoy. With this conversation we review part of the History of Heavy Metal, it’s time to enjoy and relive moments in time. So, relax, make yourself comfortable, take a drink, may be a cigarette, and prepare to travel in that timeship that is Hammerhead, as Buzz is like an opened book.
Hello Buzz and thank you for this time you dedicate to us. Let’s start talking about the old times. You were around at the end of the 70s, what memories do you have of that time?
I got into rock music at a pretty young age in the early 70s, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, & Rory Gallagher were among my favourites at that time, I left school in 1977 by which time I was already playing regularly in bands, and also going to as many rock gigs as I could, bands such as Uriah Heep, Thin Lizzy, Rainbow, Rush, Whitesnake, Hawkwind, & also many more, including other styles of music such as Weather Report & Frank Zappa whose music I really love, on the local scene I also used to like watching Hammerhead before I eventually joined them in 1979, it was a good time for Rock Music, but I also quite liked a lot of the Punk & New Wave stuff that was coming out at that time, I have a very eclectic taste in music & like all kinds of stuff.
It surprises that it was not until 2005 that you published your first full-length. You have demos from the 80s but not an album…why?
Back in the day we tried unsuccessfully to get a recording contract with several companies, I still have many of the letters of response, in most cases saying that we were not what they were looking for, even NEAT Records turned us down surprisingly, I actually thought that we were just the type of band that would have worked well on that label, but it was not to be, without record label interest we simply couldn’t afford to fund an album ourselves even though we had enough songs to make an album, our only 7” single was self financed, funded by the other guitarists dad, if he hadn’t done that for us we probably couldn’t have afforded to get that recorded either.
When we reformed I put together all the demos that we had done back in the day on to a CD to sell at a one-off gig that we were doing for a friends birthday, I had no concept that we might get approached by labels that had heard of us to release it officially, that was never in our minds, but we were thrilled when that happened, originally Sonic Age Records in Greece released ‘Will to Survive’ on CD, then eventually High Roller Records helped us to also release it on on vinyl.
You have been so long around, what keeps Hammerhead delivering the goods in 2015?
We have always really enjoyed playing live, & we have a very faithful following of fans here in West Cumbria (UK) who support us at all our local gigs making it an enjoyable experience for us as a band.
Bass player Steve Archer & myself often still get together to discuss ideas for new material, if you are into this kind of thing, it is an urge that won’t go away, you find yourself trying to come up with something that is as good, or hopefully better than your previous output, I suppose that if you don’t follow this principal, then there is no point in carrying on, you have to strive to be better, some of our earlier material has stood the test of time and is still popular, but personally I feel that some of the newer stuff is much stronger than some of our older songs.
It’s also great that many of the founding members are still in the band. Who has more gasoline in the tank of all of you? The guy with the beer and a joke always at hand?
Regarding the three original members of the band, Steve Brian & myself, after all these years we are still the best of friends, Brian is a very funny guy and great company to be in, we all like to have a drink and a laugh together, there has always been a lot of camaraderie within the band, when Tony joined on the drums 10 years ago our sound as a band became more solid and powerful, he is a big fan of John Bonham, and this influences his playing style, then when Steven Woods joined a few years ago he brought the element of showmanship into the live shows, which is something that we have never really had, I think his voice also really suits our music, and over time he has got better with us, his on-stage antics are very entertaining & often have me in stitches, it’s only a matter of time before he falls off stage like Dave Grohl did, …..hopefully the stage won’t be as high!
Hopefully we don’t see him falling… Now, we are in 2015 and you have released that wonderful old school Heavy Metal album that is “The Sin Eater”. How long have you been working on it?
We originally started writing some of the songs about 4 years ago, Steve & myself are the principal writers of the new material, but everyone contributed ideas during rehearsals etc. things were even evolving and changing right up to the recording stages, most of the new songs were tried live a few times before being recorded in the studio, this helps to see if they are working or not, at least two songs Steve & I wrote together were scrapped for not being up to standard, and we also didn’t use an acoustic ballad that Steve wrote partly due to time restrictions of the vinyl format & partly because it didn’t sit comfortably alongside all the heavier stuff.
Rehearsals of the new songs started as far back as 3 years ago, then in the first half of 2014 we booked into our favourite studio to begin the recording process, in the past we have moved very quickly in the studio, mainly due to the cost of it all, but we didn’t want to rush things on this album, gradually everything was done over around 10 – 12 full day studio sessions.
We completed everything in June of 2014, but the album wasn’t released until August 2015, it is quite a long story why it’s release was delayed for over a year, but I can tell you briefly that the artist who designed the cover Alex Von Weiding was instrumental in getting this released on High Roller Records & we are very grateful to Alex for this, as well as the awesome artwork he has done for us.
I would say “The Sin Eater” is a combination of the legacy of big bands as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest… with the NWOBHM style
I first heard Black Sabbaths first two records in 1970 when I was still a small kid, they were my older brothers records & we shared a room, when he was out I would listen to them along with ‘Death walks behind you’ by Atomic Rooster, the doomy sound on those early heavy metal albums has probably influenced my guitar sound & writing style more than anything else, these days I like to play & write in all kinds of styles, but that early 70s doomy sound is still in my heart, there were lots of great rock bands playing around the late 70s & early 80s, but because it was quite hard to get signed to a label, lots of bands (ourselves included), opted for the home-made approach, bringing out C90 tape demos, designing their own logos & single sleeves etc. this led on to one of the most popular rock newspapers at the time ‘SOUNDS’ running an article documenting this evolving underground scene, they were the first to use the term NWOBHM in 1979, and I believe that it was coined by rock journalist Geoff Barton, who unfortunately seemed to hate us, he gave us a bad review at the time, and yet some of the stuff he was raving about sounded like total rubbish to me, anyway, in the same copy of SOUNDS that carried his bad review, we were at No.5 in their Heavy Metal chart, so someone must have liked us!
Hahaha, sure, everyone has once met a guy like that Barton, it’s in the human DNA, I guess, and according to the law of probability you will find this kind of guy in your lifetime, several times… Apart of that, a very interisting lesson in Metal history. Back in the 80s, as a British band, you considered yourselves part of the NWOBHM?
We don’t mind being considered to be part of the NWOBHM scene, it doesn’t do us any harm & connects us to people that seem to like our sound & style, but we have always thought of ourselves as more of an early 70s style rock band, we don’t have too many up-tempo songs like a lot of NWOBHM bands, although our songs may have a section where the tempo increases,.
I like like songs that are made up of parts, I am also a big fan of Prog Rock, so this often influences the way I think when writing new ideas for songs, the last track on our new album ‘Psilocybin’ would be a good example of this, it’s a 13 minute concept song in three parts, I used a vintage noise generator on it in the middle section, along with a whole host of strange keyboard effects, ghostly wails & giggles to represent an audible Magic Mushroom trip, & the end section features String machine, Hammond B3 organ, Mellotron, and even Tubular Bells! ….I can’t think of too many NWOBHM bands that would do that……….hopefully it will make Geoff Barton hate us even more, & I’m pretty cool with that!
Hahaha I can imagine his face… There are only seven tracks in “The Sin Eater”, but everyone of them is worth the listening. No time for commercial stuff
As an underground band we simply write the kind of stuff that we like ourselves, we are under no pressure from anyone to try and write more commercial sounding songs, so we just do what we want, & as I mentioned earlier; we do have standards, and if we feel a song is just not working for us in a live situation, then we would try to fix the problem by altering the song, or scrapping all together it if necessary, so the songs on the album are the ones that we feel are strong enough to be released, we have had mainly good feedback in most of the reviews that I have seen, there will be people who wont like it, & that’s ok, there are also lots of things I don’t like myself, I find it hard to listening to many of the bands I hear on Classic Rock magazines free CD, a lot of it just sounds like noise to me, & not enough melody.
You Buzz have a very classic voice, I would compare you with UFO’s vocalist, for example, always very balanced
I am assuming you mean on the older material here as most of the singing on the new album is done by Steven Woods, I have only provided the backing vocals on ‘The Sin Eater’ album, if you are referring to the older stuff, then it is an honour to be likened to Phil Mogg, but I wouldn’t put myself in the same league to be honest, I love Phil Moggs singing especially back in the day when UFOs album ‘Strangers in the Night’ first came out, and he still sounds great these days, we actually have a little connection to UFO in that Tony Steel & myself have both done some live work with their keyboard player Paul Raymond, Tony is also a current member of PRP (Paul Raymond Project), this is a solo project that Paul does when he’s not playing with UFO.
Awesome. Buzz, you are more a guitarist or a vocalist?
I definitely consider myself first & foremost as a guitarist, vocals is something that I have ended up doing usually because other people in whichever band I am playing in don’t want to sing, now that we have Steven Woods as lead singer, I can concentrate more on my guitar playing, and this does help me to play a bit more accurately in a live situation.
My favorite song is Closer to the Grave, wonderful riffs and magic atmosphere, it reminds me a lot to the genius Pagan Altar. What do you think? And what is your favorite song?
In another review that I read, the writer singled out ‘Closer to the Grave’ as being the weakest song on the album, so your comment in this question is interesting, it is another example that we are all different.
I really like the band Pagan Alter, although I only discovered their music around 10 years ago when a good friend I have in France sent me some of their material.
A few facts about this song; I originally wrote the chords & melodies for ‘Closer to the Grave’ on my old acoustic guitar, (this is how I always write to start with), then I made a demo of it that was played in a similar style and feel to ‘This Flight Tonight’ by Nazareth, it was originally called ‘Solid Stone’ which was a line in the chorus, when I eventually played the demo to the lads, they quite liked the idea of the song, but not the arrangement, Tony changed the beat from the Nazareth feel that I had in mind, to something that reminded me of the drums in ‘Children of the Grave’ by Sabbath, then due to disagreements about the rest of the song, I had to scrap the chorus (which was the main hook in the song) & also where the original title came from, so it ended up being a totally different song to my original demo (which still sounds ok to me).
The writing of most of the songs on ‘The Sin Eater’ album were more focussed and had some kind of direction & theme to them, except for this one, which really is a bit of a mish-mash, even the lyrics are a bit nonsensical, I have a lyric book full of ideas that come to me from time to time, and lyrics in this song were all just things I had written down at some point, there are no rules in song writing, so as long as it sounds ok in the end, then that’s ok, on this particular track I try to make up for the lack of lyrical substance with some neat guitar work, I always try to inject as much feeling into the playing as possible, and when it comes to solos, I usually try to use a first take in the studio, you can keep trying over & over, but the first take is usually the one that has the most energy & feeling, it’s good to try and capture that spontaneity in the studio if you can, the studio engineer always tries to catch me out, but I have got wise to him, when we are ready to record a solo, he always asks me to have a quick run through first, so that he can check everything, levels etc. Once I have played the ‘practice’ solo, he’ll say come & have a listen, as he has sneakily recorded it, quite often it would turn out good enough to use, so now I always assume that the practice run though is going to be the one, and it often is.
Getting back to the last part of your question, my personal favourite song on The Sin Eater album is ‘Psilocybin’, of all the songs that I have ever written, this is the one that I am most proud of, I didn’t think that the rest of the lads would want to do it, as it is not our usual heavy style, but I am pleased they agreed to have a go, I am very pleased with the way it has turned out in the end, if you are curious, you can hear my original demo of this song on YouTube, just to show how it sounded in the beginning.
I would underline also Psilocybin. I think the title expresses it quite right. It’s like there were no rules, a crazy song where you can expect any kind of movement, apolyptic guitars, awesome atmosphere, progressive sounds, so big…
I listen to a lot of weird psychedelic music, I always have, things like Tangerine Dream, Nektar, Gong, Can, & stuff even further off the scale!!!, this has some influence on me as a writer, but I know that not everyone likes their music so far out, in the case of my song ‘Psilocybin’ I decided to write a song about the very first time that I dabbled with ‘shrooms’, it was around 1979 & I had such a vivid & intense bad trip that the experience has stayed with me from that day to this!
When I came write the words down, they came quite easily, I have told people the story of that day so many times, that I just quickly wrote down the days events as they had happened, and used it as the dialogue section in part three of the song, I read one review where they guy writing thought that the song was too long & lost its way, but I assure you every second of that song is intentional, the very slow build up to the insane crescendo towards the end was necessary to enable the story line to be told, gradually becoming more & more intense as it progresses, until it eventually peaks at the end of the dialogue, the music then eventually subsides & dissipates into a gentle musical box melody that drifts away into the distance.
It was always going to be a hard song to get recorded properly, & using dialogue is never an easy thing to get right, but Guy Forrester did an amazing job on the production helping me to get the whole thing to sound exactly as I wanted it to, amazingly it has had more airplay on some of the radio stations that I listen to than any of the other songs, it is also the reason that we were offered the chance to play the opening slot at HRH PROG 4 in North Wales next year, so somehow, I now have to figure out how to perform it live, which is not easy.
And talking about guitars, in “The Sin Eater” we can find so many great guitar solos, where do you get the ideas and feeling for such a flow?
Bass player Steve Archer wrote the original concept for this song, he gave me a tape of some chords and some words, I liked the idea of the subject matter, so I helped him to complete his ideas into the finished song, tweaking the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements a little, I also felt that it needed to be expanded to make it a bit more epic sounding, I have always loved listening to Ritchie Blackmores playing, I always liked how he blends more traditional bluesy notes & scales with Eastern scales on songs such as ‘Gates of Babylon’ or even ‘Stargazer’, I used his inspiration to work out the long solo at the end of the song, to write something like this, I often play the chords into my ‘looper’ effects pedal, then once the sequence of chords are playing around & around in the looper, I start practising over the top of the loop, jamming different ideas until something stands out & grabs my attention, I am a fan of spontaneous random solos, but sometimes it is also necessary to give a solo structure, when I play the solo live in this song I try to play it as I have written it, on other songs the solos will be different every time.
Returning a little to Hammerhead’s history, what concerts do you remember as more special in your career? What gigs shared with other bands?
Over the years we have got to support some of my favourite bands, the stand out ones for me would be Uriah Heep, Budgie, Michael Schenker, & Diamond Head, these are all bands that I have loved for a big part of my life, so getting to play on the same stage as any of them has been an amazing experience for an underground band like us.
We can consider Hammerhead some kind of a legend in the UK’s Heavy Metal scene?
The word ‘Legendary’ is used quite freely these days for all kinds of people, but I am not sure we deserve to be classed as legendary, it is such a strange thing that our music has spread as far afield as it has, before the internet came along, I’m pretty sure that not many people in other parts of the World would have heard of us, but I get so much enquiries about the band for all over the Globe, that somehow our stuff must be circulating out there, & people all over the place are aware of us.
I would guess that because we never achieved any commercial success, or have never been able to tour in other Countries, it gives you some kind of mystical legendary status, particularly to fans in other parts of the Wolrd.
Will you tour around to promote your new album?
Touring is still a very difficult prospect for us, three members of the band are in full time employment, (& all on different shift rotas), which makes a normal tour almost impossible, this is unfortunate because it is something that we would still love to do, we have played overseas a few times at small festivals, so this type of thing is still possible.
We would like to play at the Rock Hard festival in Germany where we seem to be increasingly popular, we have featured a few times in their magazine, & I have asked if it may be possible, but nothing solid has come of it so far.
And last, we have Hammerhead for many years to come?
Steve and I have written two more new songs, so eventually we will get round to recording those in the studio & see where it leads us, we still want to play live for as long as we can, but life is always getting in the way of fun, plus we are all getting older, so eventually it will have to come to an end, but I don’t know when that will be, Brian has tried to call it a day a few times but we always persuade him to carry on.
For various reasons we have been struggling to get everyone together to rehearse recently which is not ideal, we have two really important gigs next year, Brofest 4 in Newcastle (UK), & our opening slot at HRH Prog 4.
For anyone overseas wanting to see the band live, getting to one of these festivals would be the best way to do it, but please note, the sets we play at each of these festivals will be very different, the Brofest gig will be our usual heavier style, the set that we will be putting together for the HRH event will be aimed more at a Prog audience.
So, choose the Hammerhead you wanna listen to in the music menu, please. Thanks a lot Buzz and keep playing great music for many years!