By Avinash Mittur
Northern California thrashers Hatchet have been playing shows around the bay area for quite some time now, and are ready to release their second album at any given moment. Their first album on Metal Blade Records, “Awaiting Evil,” was released four years ago with an entirely different lineup, and now the current version of this band is ready to show the metal world what they’re capable of. I had the chance to talk to the members of Hatchet last night after their opening set for the newly reunited Coven and A Band of Orcs. We got to talk about the band’s upcoming plans, bay area audiences, and the way that the economy has affected working musicians among a myriad of other topics. Check out my chat with guitarist and lead singer Julz Ramos, lead guitarist Clark Webb, drummer Eli Lucas and bassist Travis Russey, and be sure to check out their facebook page to see more updates on upcoming shows and to listen to some of their new songs.
You guys just finished up your set opening for Coven and A Band of Orcs, how do you think it went?
Julz: I think it was decent! The crowd was skimpier than what we would want, definitely an older drinking crowd, but I think everyone was into it nonetheless, based on the crowd response.
Clark: I think it was a very good set, we had a lot of good energy and even though there were a minimal amount of people, everyone who was here looked like they were very attentive and into what we were playing. We even got an encore song, which doesn’t happen at every show, so that was very good that everyone enjoyed what they were hearing.
Eli: I would second that, but I couldn’t see the crowd from behind my drums!
Travis: The show to me felt pretty great, playing an encore was nothing less than awesome.
Clark, you’re the newest member of Hatchet and you’re also the youngest member of the band at age 19. There are a ton of kids your age and younger that want to be working musicians when they’re older, and you’re out there actually doing it. What are some of the struggles that you’ve had to overcome doing this at such a young age? What are some of the positive experiences that have come with it?
Clark: The whole thing has been a positive experience, it makes me feel as if I’m actually doing something with my life. The negative experiences have been living on my own, and working whatever jobs I can find. It’s definitely a month-to-month struggle making enough money to support myself and do Hatchet stuff part-time. It’s been worth it though, it’s been a positive thing doing this on my own. It’s been rough at times, but it’s worth it.
So is becoming a full-time musician a goal you want to work towards?
Clark: Totally. It’s the only plan I have for my life. You only live once, so you might as well do something epic you know? You might as well deal with the struggle, live on your own, play some music and have a good time. I think that’s what it’s all about.
Hatchet’s first album, Awaiting Evil, was released on Metal Blade Records four years ago, but now you guys are free unsigned agents. Julz, as the only member of this lineup to remain from that time, you’ve had the opportunity to work as an independent artist, and a member of a signed act. You’ve seen both perspectives in the last few years. Do you see yourself remaining independent or would you be willing to work with a large label again?
Julz: We are very actively shopping our new album to labels right now. The album is 100% finished- mixing, mastering, cover art, everything is completely done. We are looking for a label that is supportive, wants to help us out and gives clear, concise direction on what to do. When we got signed to Metal Blade, we were all 18-19 years old around then. We had never been on a label, but we received no direction and minimal contact. All they ever told us was to “stay on the road as often as we could.” It was cool to be with Metal Blade just for the sake of saying we were signed to the label, but they didn’t really do much for us. We had a couple of magazine reviews and interviews when the album was released, but other than that it was just a big spike of hype that quickly died off.
It’s interesting that they just told you guys to stay on the road as much as possible. Record labels, the good ones anyway, are supposed to help the band with tour support. Is that a quality that you guys are also looking for in a prospective label?
Julz: Definitely. You know, we don’t want to sign with a label that will do a half-assed job. If we sign with a record label now, we have to get set up with the proper elements that make a band work. That means management, booking agents, stuff like that. If that’s not on the table, then we have figure out what we can do on our own. We’re not willing to quit our jobs to play for 20-30 people on a D.I.Y. tour. It has to proper- I’m not trying to be a dick or anything, but we’re being realistic. I know that we’re not going to make money right away, it’s going to take years to reach the level of bands that still may not be covering all their expenses. As long as the exposure and the push is correct- that is what’s important to me, that we get the proper stepping stones. Why make a deal with a label if we know that we’re only going to keep playing local shows and one-offs and pay for everything out of our pockets?
On a less serious note, what were some of your influences when you were listening to music the most, when you were forming your musical tastes, when you were learning your instruments and thinking “Oh, that player is awesome, I want to be like them!”
Julz: Most of the inspiration for me came from the obvious groups you’d think of, Metallica, Slayer etc. I actually learned to play thrash guitar by learning the guitar parts to the first four albums by those two bands. From there on I experienced Judas Priest, Testament and other bands. Arch Enemy in particular really inspired me as a newer band with a melodic sound and great musicianship.
Clark: I actually used to be a drummer when I was 13 before I played guitar at age 14. I was auditioning for a talent show and my band at the time didn’t think I was a very good drummer. However, they said they’d keep me around if I could play guitar and sing. Kirk Hammett was the first influence on me because some of the first songs I ever learned on guitar were Metallica songs, but after that I branched off into other genres and eventually Dimebag Darrell became my biggest influence as a guitar player.
Sorry Clark, I have to check this. Which era of Pantera are we talking about here?
Clark: I would say from Power Metal in 1988 to about 1992 with Vulgar Display of Power. The first three albums with Phil Anselmo singing were the ones that really inspired me. Dimebag’s leads, his rhythm playing, everything about him made me what to become a better guitar player and create my own style. I then really got into Iron Maiden and loved their melodic aspects. I wanted to play music that was heavy thrash like early Pantera, but I wanted to have something melodic in there too.
Eli, in your case I’ve seen your YouTube videos with drum covers of Dragonforce, Iron Maiden, and Helloween among others. Is that where your main inspiration as a drummer comes from?
Eli: Those actually aren’t from too long ago! I started off with guitar as a teenager, but I started drumming a bit later. I was generally influenced by the usual stuff thrash drummers tend to listen to, Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden being the big ones. I also love a lot of progressive stuff like Meshuggah and Dream Theater.
And yourself Travis?
Travis: Definitely Iron Maiden. When you hear Steve Harris as a bass player and hearing what an important part of their sound he was, not only in his playing and tone but also in his songwriting, there’s a lot to learn from him. That definitely got me started, along with Cliff Burton from Metallica. There’s so many interviews I’ve read where people talked about him playing not as a bass player, but rather as a lead guitar player- taking leads and solos, while still keeping the backbone strong as a classic bass player should. Ian Hill from Judas Priest is a good example of a really solid bass player who could keep that rhythm locked down. But then I just loved the stuff Steve Harris and Cliff Burton would do with small lead things here and there. That was back in high school, but my tastes have gotten far more eclectic these days.
Nowadays, many thrash metal bassists are drowned out and inaudible in the mix, both live and in the studio. In your case with Hatchet however, your playing stands out and the crowd is able to notice your very busy playing and the fills you throw in.
Travis: I try to keep a very prevalent tone, and I think we’re lucky to have found a good balance between the rhythm and lead guitars where the bass can take that rhythm backseat, but also take kind of a lead state where it can drive the live sound. When we talk about tone, it’s all about preference when it gets to that point. Some bass players really want to keep their tone low and bassy, and it can become very subtle. They may not want to take a lead and they not be too prominent, but they’re still there driving the band and keeping them going as kind of a backbone.
Julz, you mentioned that the second album is ready to go. For fans of the first album, Awaiting Evil, is there anything different they can expect from the new album? Are there any elements that you decided to carry over from the first record?
Julz: The one thing I can definitely say about it, is that the production is definitely up to 2012 standards. For our earlier release, we went for an actual old school thrash sound. We tracked the album to analog tape, which made the album sound really thin and very ’80s-like. Some people really liked that, but I think that it was a big detriment. I think that’s why it wasn’t listened to by many people and the newer generations of thrash kids who are used to a big refined sound. We’ll definitely have a big digital sound, but we still have the classic thrash tone. As far as the writing goes, it’s more diverse and stronger overall. I think it’ll be a far better release.
Clark is the newest member of Hatchet, but did he get a chance to contribute to the new album at all?
Julz: He did actually. All the songs were written before he joined and I tracked the rhythm guitars myself to keep it tighter as many bands do, but he did do all of his solos and wrote them all in a relatively short amount of time, which was really kick ass. He did really well as far as that aspect goes, so all the solos that I don’t play on there are his. On the first album I played all of the solos, but now almost every song features two Slayer-style trade-off solos.
Obviously, the Bay Area thrash scene is mostly gone. One thing I have noticed up here though is that there is still a dedicated group of kids who love going to the shows and hanging out with the bands. Julz, you’ve been playing gigs in the bay for five years now, how have you seen this scene change and develop in that time?
Julz: I would actually have to take a contrary stance to what you just said. Lately, it feels like the only shows that people attend are the big shows and big bands that come around. Back during that initial thrash resurgence, it seemed that every venue could pack 200-300 kids. Now, everyone’s gotten older and aren’t really coming out and supporting the bands anymore. I think that it might have even been more of a partying and social thing for those kids, and now they’ve grown out of it. It’s been hard, I’ve actually seen a lot smaller crowds consistently. The ones that are there though are a lot more dedicated and understand what it means to support the scene. Unfortunately, I’d have to say that it’s on the decline.
Could you say though, that the fewer dedicated fans that come out these are more worth holding on to than the ones who were packing the venues all those years ago, then left?
Julz: I definitely agree with that statement. It’s like when you say “how many true friends do I really have as a person” and seeing how many actual friends you have versus the people that just hang around. As for the fans that continue to stick around, there are a good amount of them that I notice from five years ago when we had a completely different lineup. These fans are still all about it, but the others just kind of fizzled out either because of the lineup changes or they just stopped going to shows entirely.
Travis: The bad economy has definitely contributed as well.
Has the economy affected you guys in a way that’s prevented you from putting on shows or hitting the road?
Travis: Shit’s more expensive overall. Gas prices are the biggest detriment to us as a band, yet we still try to make it out. It’s been the main reason why we don’t do D.I.Y. tours these days. It’s just too costly at this point in time. As for normal shows, we still try to play as many shows in the area as we can, we don’t let gas affect that. We even made it out to Las Vegas recently. As for D.I.Y. tours across the country, that’s just way too expensive.
Clark: If we had a label helping us out, then a full tour would be something that we could realistically consider. We would need support in the form of a booking agent and gas money to make sure we could get to the next show.
Social media has been a huge part of bands’ promotional tools in the last few years. Hatchet’s Facebook page is regularly updated and you guys are good about replying to fans’ posts, which I really like. Has social media been an overall positive outlet for you guys? Do you think that the fact that it’s become more necessary to be on top of these pages ultimately a good thing for you guys?
Travis: I think Facebook has been a good outlet for any sort of promotion, whether it’s music or otherwise. Recently, it’s become skimpier due to their new standards of promoting posts. If a fan doesn’t interact with the band enough, they won’t see every post we put up. Facebook is now asking us to pay a certain amount of money, five to ten dollars, to allow the posts to be seen by a larger bracket of our own fans. So even if you’re a fan, you still can’t see our posts unless you interact with the band often or we pay that fee. That’s all Facebook’s deal. Nevertheless, Facebook is a great way to promote your band. Make a profile, make as many posts relating to shows, interests, things your fans may like, anything relating to your subject matter as a band itself. It could even be just what your fans like and what they like to hear. This could range from a funny picture to something that happened during band practice. You want to gain interaction with your fans, because a lot of fans simply want to be interacted with. They enjoy that a band they like is actually talking to them. Anything from Facebook helps, it’s a great medium.
One thing that I’ve always complained about regardless of where one is located, is the lack of all ages live music venues, whether it’s hard rock, metal or any other genre. Recently, the Bay Area had an all ages venue close, the Avalon Nightclub in Santa Clara. I got to see Hatchet there on a few occasions, along with many other great bands, and the venue was always well run and well organized. What are your thoughts on the Avalon’s closure and the fact that we’re losing more all ages venues?
Julz: I think there are still a fair number of all ages venues out there, the problem is that we’re losing prominent ones that have the promotion and the proper bookers behind them. It sucks, but it’s being caused by the economy and lack of support from a large number of music fans. They’ll go see their friend’s band then leave, and they don’t understand that doing it many times over is a detriment to the whole scene in general. It’s fan-based, it’s economy-based, loyalty plays a part in it, the pay to play system has had an effect on it and high ticket prices too. There has to be a proper balance of those things, and it’s the promoters and the people who work at the venue who are the ones to get that job done. It’s a big job, one that I couldn’t fathom doing myself, but it’s their responsibility to work to achieve that balance. Take the Regency Ballroom for example, who cancelled the Overkill show the night before it was supposed to happen. So many people were upset about that, and anyone could speculate as to why it was cancelled, whether it was ticket sales or something else. I know that there were two metal shows at the Regency before that had done very poorly, it could have been based on that or issues between the band and the booking agent or promoter, it could have been anything that the general public has no knowledge about.
Clark: I’d like to say that the Avalon closing was a huge shame, it was a great place to play with great staff and it was one of the only places with a sanitary bathroom. It was also a great place to see shows, and everything was very nice and top notch about it. They had their shit together, and it’s a real shame to see them go. About the whole all ages venue thing though, it sucks because they were one of the only all ages venues that had a system that worked pretty well when it came to alcohol. Their hand-stamp system was effective, and kids could come see bands freely. There are still venues that haven’t gotten it together, and they remain 21+. Being 19, it’s hard when your favorite bands come through town and you can’t go and see them. If I end up playing at those venues, I oftentimes have to wait outside until the second I go onstage, and then I’m escorted out as soon as the set’s over. It’s like, I’m not here to drink or get fucked up, I’m just here to play music and make people feel good. Places like the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, the Last Day Saloon in Santa Rosa and the Fat Cat in Modesto, those venues seriously need to figure out a system, whether it’s a wristband or stamp. With all ages, they’d get a bigger turnout, more funds, and a younger audience that really want to see the music. It’s really about the younger fans who have the money to spend and that still depend on their parents. These kids can afford to go to shows, and I think it’s important that venues take advantage of that and become all ages.
To finish up, what’s next on the horizon for Hatchet? What can fans expect to see from you guys in the coming months?
Julz: Well, we’re waiting on a couple of professional representatives that we have that are shopping our album and they’re giving us constant feedback. That’s the next step right now, and again, getting the proper things in place if we do get an interested label. We want to make sure that it works properly for us, and our goal personally, is to quit our jobs, go tour, and do nothing but that. We want to spend our days in the van we are in right now. If that doesn’t happen though, we’ll step down and see what is the next level we can do to keep going, and keep our personal lives intact. The goal is to get out there and be a full functional touring act, so the next step in that plan is waiting for responses on the album.