Interview by Avinash Mittur
Flag bearers of classic American heavy metal for the past 32 years, Metal Church have gone through ups and downs but withstood them to eventually come out on the upside. They broke up for a second time in 2009, but have now successfully made a comeback, which included a spectacular greatest hits set at the 70000 Tons Of Metal Cruise last January. Currently, they’re working towards making this a full-fledged comeback by releasing a new album in the near future. Yesterday, our man Avinash Mittur, an ardent follower of Metal Church, spoke to vocalist Ronny Munroe and dug deep to discuss just about everything Metal Church. Enjoy the great conversation below.
First thing, I can happily say I am talking to Metal Church vocalist Ronny Munroe, now that you guys are back together!
[laughs] Yeah, finally eh?
Seriously! When you guys broke up in 2009, the main reason cited for the dissolution was ‘industry frustrations’- that’s what I could find anyway. Could you go into a bit of detail about the breakup? What about the industry made Metal Church want to break up?
Well in a nutshell without going into a huge and long story here, it was certain aspects of things that had continued to happen to the band throughout its career. Not having the proper management and the proper people in place that were handling us. You know, we ended up taking some shows we shouldn’t have taken and that just led to where Kurdt [Vanderhoof, guitarist] was really getting fed up and then we all kind of got that way. Basically we figured before we end up disbanding because of other reasons such as maybe starting to fight with one another or whatnot, we decided to go ahead and end it then. We all ended up friends and we wanted to keep it that way. So I won’t go into specifics, but we all know what the music industry is like now compared to what it was like back then. We just didn’t have the right people in our camp.
Well, I think we would both agree that in 2013 the industry is in perhaps a worse state than when Metal Church broke up. What are you guys going to do differently this time around?
[laughs] Yeah, well this time around we’re going to release this next record on Kurdt’s label. Basically Kurdt and the band and whatnot are taking a lot more control of the situation. Yes, maybe the downloading thing is even worse than 2009 but also on the other hand if you know what you’re doing and you use the internet correctly, you can actually have success. Kurdt’s been doing that with his prog band Presto Ballet and whatnot. In this day and age, the time is right to go and try something on your own. If it doesn’t work, you can always end up going out and searching for a label or something. We’re going to take a shot at it and see what happens and I think we’re probably going to have some decent success.
About the shows, you said that the band took a few ‘bad’ ones here and there. What kind of show would you consider to be a ‘good’ one? What kind of bill or lineup would that be?
We’ll do some headlining stuff, a lot of festival things, some fly-ins and whatnot. If we get an opening slot for a very credible band, Maiden, Priest or somebody big like that, then we would possibly go out for a month or two if they wanted us to. Other than that, we’re going to be more selective. For The Weight of the World and A Light in the Dark we did a lot of touring, especially with The Weight of the World we did about a year and a half of touring, and sometimes we had somebody else in the band helping handle the booking and whatnot. Shows kind of got snuck in there that shouldn’t have been, and sometimes when you play a show to not very many people it makes you look worse than if you just had not played at all. Basically we’re just going to be a bit more selective with our shows, that’s about it man.
You mentioned that you guys toured for a year and a half straight for The Weight of the World. Do you think that Metal Church could be a full-time touring act once again? Do any of you have other commitments that could possibly prevent that from happening?
Well, we’re all doing our different projects as well. In this day and age, unless you are Metallica or a band of that stature and music is all you do, you pretty much have to do more than one project to survive. Metal Church is going to be out there doing the shows we need to do, Kurdt is going to continue doing Presto Ballet, I’m writing my third solo record and we’re going to start recording that soon, Jeff Plate [drums] has Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I’m involved with T.S.O. too. I don’t exactly know when I’m going to go back out with them, but I’m still involved with that. The other guys are doing stuff as well. Like I said, we’ve got to do other things besides just Metal Church.
Right, I was actually going to ask you about some of your other projects as well. So you will for sure be involved with T.S.O. in the coming future, that remains an ongoing project for yourself?
It’s an ongoing project, I’m in the family. I’m not exactly sure at this point when I’m going to be out there or what I’m going to do, but yes I’ve been told that I’m part of the family and I just have to wait around and see what happens.
Very cool. I also wanted to ask you about Presto Ballet since you sung on their Invisible Places album. That’s a bit of a departure for you since that material is old school ‘70s-style progressive rock as opposed to traditional heavy metal.
Very true man, it just gave me a chance to spread my wings more. I was a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s anyway and I learned how to sing from a lot of that stuff. It was very cool for me, I am known of course as a metal singer but Presto Ballet gave me a chance to show more of the actual singing side of my voice, as did T.S.O.
I like that you branched out and diversified your discography, I think that’s a very cool thing for a singer of any genre.
Well thank you man, I got a little bit of flak here and there but that doesn’t matter to me. What’s important to me is that I love to sing and that I was afforded those opportunities to go out and spread my wings.
Kurdt Vanderhoof is known as the main songwriter for Metal Church, but on the three Metal Church albums you’ve sung on, you have a co-writing credit on nearly every one of those songs.
That’s because of Kurdt. Kurdt is a great lyricist as well as great musician as we all know. He could have written all of the stuff, but he basically had confidence in my abilities and let me go with a lot of stuff. It was an honor for me. This time around on the new record, I must say that Kurdt is a lot more involved in the melody lines and with lyric writing and whatnot. On the last two records he only wrote the lyrics to one song, but this time around he’s going to be doing more than that. We’ve been working hard together on the melody lines and the lyrical content.
On those three records, what were your specific contributions? Were they vocal melodies, or perhaps the occasional riff here and there?
As far as my contributions go, Kurdt always writes the music. That’s his baby. How it works is he sends me the stuff, he gives me the opportunity to write my lyrics and my melody lines, I record them and send them back to him, and then he says ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on what he likes and doesn’t like. He’ll go ahead and combine things or come up with his own thing, but a lot of times he’ll send me something that is a combination of his and my stuff. Then I go off of that, and I go back in and do rewrites, record it again and then we repeat the process. That’s the cool thing about all of us having our home studios for pre-production, it’s really a blessing to be honest. That’s kind of how it works!
I also wanted to talk about the 70000 Tons of Metal Cruise. You guys played a greatest hits set where the fans got to vote for the songs played, and you also did the first album in its entirety.
I couldn’t have, or rather we couldn’t have asked for a better reunion gig than to play on a boat with fans from all over the world and press from all over the world. We got on the boat and we rocked it. It was a great time, we had a really great response and met a lot of cool people.
Cool! About the greatest hits, I understand that you were a bit surprised that the fans ended up voting for the title track to A Light in the Dark instead of a song like ‘Mirror of Lies’ or one of the other newer tracks.
Yeah, well when I looked at that I was just thankful that there was one of the songs from my era in the greatest hits set list! The so-to-speak greatest hits anyway, it was a fan-picked thing. But I was just surprised that there was a song in there from my era. There should be more but hey, Metal Church has a huge discography and a lot of great songs, so again I was just pleased to see one of the songs that I sung on in there.
Out of the albums you sung on, what songs would you say are eternal Metal Church classics? Like what would belong on a best-of album if one were to be assembled in 2013?
I would say ‘A Light in the Dark’ because we played that live a lot and it went over well, and ‘Mirror of Lies’ also off of that album. That was actually our first video that went on Headbanger’s Ball a couple times. As far as off The Weight of the World, ‘Madman’s Overture’ is a great song. That was great when we played that one live. I really like ‘Hero’s Soul’ myself, I played that live with my solo band. We never played that with Metal Church. With This Present Wasteland, I don’t know! That’s a great album as well but those songs that I just mentioned would be the ones I’d pick and would want on a Metal Church greatest-hits album.
Right on, I would have tossed in the title track to The Weight of the World too, but you definitely picked some great ones.
See, I forget all the songs I’ve done! ‘The Weight of the World’ is a great song too. We used to play ‘Leave Them Behind’ live too and that went over well. It’s hard to say man, especially with stuff that I’ve had a hand in writing. I tend not to listen to myself too much after it’s done. [laughs]
About the other set you all did on the boat with the first album played in its entirety- there were a few songs that this lineup of Metal Church had not played at all like ‘Hitman’ and ‘In the Blood’. Were those songs difficult to learn for you guys, especially given that this was your first gig back together?
Well, no I wouldn’t say that they were difficult. I don’t know about the rest of the guys as far as the instrumentation and whatnot, because there are some fast runs in there, but everyone seemed to pick it up really well. For me, singing-wise, we all listen to that first record. That’s a classic record, and I used to drive around screaming those songs at the top of my lungs, not knowing that twenty-odd years later I would be singing them live. It was really cool, and I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I have that in my range, I always have. Singing the songs from the albums that Dave [Wayne, former vocalist] was on and being able to do that whole first record was an honor. It was really cool for me and actually I’m sure some people didn’t know, but that album was in standard tuning but a half-step down. We played it and I sang it a half-step up.
That’s right, I was going to ask you about that. I saw the live video of you guys playing ‘Hitman’ on the boat and noticed that you all played it in E-standard as opposed to E-flat.
Yeah it’s funny because I didn’t even really notice that until Kurdt goes “Do you know that you’re singing it a half-step higher than the original?” and I went “No?” He goes “Well, you are” so I say “Well, alright!” It is what it is I guess, eh?
This wasn’t listed on some of the set lists for some reason, but is it true that you guys played the title track to The Human Factor as the encore for that set?
Yeah, we did.
That’s really interesting because there are no members of the present lineup that played on the studio recordings from that album and the [former vocalist] Mike Howe-era of the band in general, although obviously Kurdt wrote the songs.
Well yeah man, and it’s all paying homage to every past and present member of Metal Church. Mike Howe was the second singer and had great success with Metal Church. I have the utmost respect for both Mike and Dave, as does Kurdt and the whole band. When we go out, of course we’re going to try and give recognition to both singers and the whole discography as best we can. I myself as a singer, the way I approach it I try to keep the songs as close to the original as I can with a little twist of myself, just to pay respect to those guys.
Mike and Dave were both very different singers. When going back and forth between the eras do you tend to change your vocal approach a little bit? Is singing songs from one era more natural for you than the other?
You know, I’ve got a pretty wide range and whatnot, so I really just go up there and I don’t think about it too much. I just sing the way that I sing and like I said, I try to stay as true to the original as I can.
This might be kind of an odd topic, but I wanted to clarify the whole thing about Jay Reynolds [former guitarist initially announced as being part of the reunion] and find out whether he is or is not involved in Metal Church presently.
I’ll answer this shortly. Jay was given an opportunity and he did not come through for us, so Jay Reynolds is no longer a part of Metal Church. Rick Van Zandt has stepped in, the guy that played on This Present Wasteland. Rick will be our permanent guitar player.
You might want to tell that to the folks editing Metal Church’s Wikipedia page! It still lists Jay Reynolds as a member.
[laughs] Okay, we’ll have to look into that!
You guys have the Facebook page up to date though, and that’s the first front for fans these days so good on you guys for keeping that updated.
We’re having new photos taken tomorrow actually, before our weekend rehearsals for Brazil. So We’re going to have a new photo shoot done and that will be taken care of as far as that goes. We’ll have somebody take care of the Wikipedia thing. [laughs] Jay still is part of the history of the band, and always will be. It’s just sad, but I’m not going to get into details.
Sure. So Rick Van Zandt will for sure play on the upcoming Metal Church record?
Yes he will.
Awesome. He did a kick-ass job with some of those solos dude, I was surprised at how close they were to the original article, what Craig [Wells, former guitarist] played.
Oh, well I’ll make sure I’ll tell him that, he’ll appreciate that. Rick’s history in a nutshell is I met him in 2002. He was in a band from the ‘80s called Rottweiler from Seattle. They were going to play Wacken Open Air and they called me and asked if I would replace their singer. So I did, and that’s how I got to know Rick. I brought him into my solo band and eventually brought him into Metal Church. He got to do three shows, one record and then we broke up. So that’s kind of how things happened at the start with that. We got back together, we were going to bring back Jay, things just didn’t work out, so we called Rick. It was the right thing to do and now the rest is history. This is now the lineup, hopefully for the rest of the band’s history.
About this upcoming record, from what I know Kurdt’s been writing more old-school Metal Church riffs reminiscent of The Dark and the first record. Is that still true since the last time any of you guys have talked with the press?
Yeah! There’s some stuff that’s very reminiscent of the old days with some stuff that’s very ‘now’. There’s a bit of… I’m not going to say ‘prog’ because it’s not, but there’s a couple of elements in there that are a little bit progressive. For the most part, out of this batch of songs, they really sound more reminiscent of the early days than anything we’ve done before with this lineup. This excites me very much, and I think the fans are really going to dig it.
Well you know, the progressive element has been there before. During the Mike Howe-era the songs were a lot longer.
Yes, it was! Kurdt and I talked about that recently and he kind of mentioned that. That’s when he started to go in that direction a little bit and I love it. He’s a master songwriter as we all know, so just about anything he does ends up great. And if it’s not great, he fixes it to where it is great.
When you were still a young Metal Church fan, was David Wayne or Mike Howe more of an influence on you as a singer?
I would say… I’m not going to say that Mike was really an influence. I dug his voice and have the utmost respect for him. He’s also a good guy. Dave was more of an influence because at that time when the first album came out, I was seventeen, eighteen years old and I was really into screaming. In fact, I practiced screaming more than I actually did singing! [laughs] Those first two records were awesome, and they were in my library from the very start. I would have to say that Dave was more of an influence, but I’ve got a lot more influences than that. You know, Dio, Bruce Dickinson, Rob Halford, Ian Gillan, even a lot of A.M. radio and Motown- stuff that I used to listen to in the car with my mom, just anybody that could sing really well, carry a note and write a good tune was who I respected.
About the Motown thing, I’m more of a Stax guy but hey. [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah well Motown, R&B and all that kind of stuff- I’ve got a broad taste when it comes to music.
Very cool and you know, one can directly hear the David Wayne influence because both of you guys got that Udo Dirkschneider-like raspy high wail going on. Really, really cool stuff.
Well thanks man, I appreciate that.
Well sure. So Kurdt produced and engineered the three albums you sung on, is this going to be the case with the upcoming record as well?
Yes it is.
Alright, cool. Would you prefer it that way, or has having an outside producer ever helped or perhaps detracted from the recording experience?
Well to be honest with you, all the records I’ve done with Metal Church have been produced and engineered by him. We have not worked with an outside producer with this lineup. There’s something to be said for that. We’re working with somebody like Kurdt who has ears from God. He’s just one of those guys. If you have someone with the abilities to do all this stuff where he can have the creative control and where he feels more comfortable, well then that makes me feel comfortable about the situation as well. At this point, I’ve not seen a reason to go out and find anybody else. Maybe one day if somebody mentions that we’ll look into it, but for now I just see Kurdt producing and I’m fine with that.
This is kind of a random off-shoot topic, but on ‘The Human Factor’ Mike Howe sang about how technology was dehumanizing music. He was referring to sampling at the time, but you could make the same argument with Pro Tools. In your experience, do those lyrics still apply in 2013?
[laughs] Well, when they wrote that I don’t think that they knew that things were headed the way they were as far as how much it has gone to this point. But you know, Kurdt doesn’t use any samples or any of that kind of stuff. The Pro Tools thing might be a bit of a contradiction, but as long as he isn’t going in there using, as you just mentioned, samples or anything fake then I think everything is fine. But once you cross that line, I don’t know, I guess there’s no going back. Where do you go from there? You’re just going to keep using that stuff right? As far as Pro Tools and all those things go… I use GarageBand when I record vocals- it’s a godsend. The internet and all this stuff is a double-edged sword dude, as we all know. It’s a great thing, but it can be a very bad thing as far as people being able to steal your music and your art. Basically I guess what I’m trying to say is that you got to make the best of it and just hope for the best. People are going to do what they’re going to do, and I’m going to continue to make music, and I’m Kurdt is too, until the day I die. Hopefully our fans out there will see that we’re working hard and that they will purchase the record just as they had done in the past.
Actually yes I have. As I said at the start of this interview, playing that boat was a big tool for us. I mean, there’s more of a buzz about the band now than when I first joined and when the world found out that we were reuniting in 2004! I think that has to do with our ex-record company and doing the proper promotion, but yes I have noticed that. We’re just going to do the best that we can, write the best record we can and try to use that to our advantage to stay around. The bottom line is that regardless of our having to do other projects and this and that, we want Metal Church to be around for years to come. As long as we handle it the right way, it will be.
I have to ask this because Metal Assault is based in Los Angeles, but are you guys going to make your way over here any time soon?
Well, we’ve got a lot of plans. Next Friday we’re boarding a plane to Brazil and playing that festival in Sao Paulo which is going to be cool. It’s the first time in Metal Church’s history that they’ve played South America, so we’re all really looking forward to that. Then when we get back immediately we’re going to start doing drum tracks. Once we get the record done and after this summer when we go to Germany for a couple of shows, that’s when we’ll start thinking about any U.S. dates and any kinds of tours and things like that. But yes, we’re definitely going to play the states.
Good! It was kind of funny, last summer Malice [Jay Reynolds’ once and present group] played a show with Heretic [who once featured Mike Howe on vocals] here in Los Angeles. It was like two off-shoot Metal Church family connections, but not the band themselves!
[laughs] I guess there’s a lot of connections like that. It’s a small world once you make it to a certain level.
One thing I also wanted to ask, when you guys broke up in 2009, did you anticipate Metal Church reuniting or was it the end as far as you were concerned?
To be honest with you, I knew that we would come back eventually. We just needed to die down a little bit, Kurdt needed to go ahead and do Presto Ballet- that gave me the chance to do my first solo record and Jeff went off and did Machines of Grace, so we just needed that time apart. I always knew that eventually, when Kurdt wanted to and felt that the time was right, that we’d do it again. It took four years but hey, because of that we’ve gotten some really good gigs and we’re back together, we’re going to do a new record and we’re going to try this thing again. We’re all really stoked about it and looking forward to the future.
From what I understand, you’re a guitar player as well as a singer, correct?
I play a little bit, yeah. I’m able to strum out some chords and kind of get half a song structure and after I do that, I hand it over to whoever I’m working with. With pointers, they turn it into something for me. I’m working on that, it’s a work in progress. I’m actually an ex-drummer. I played saxophone for about three months, then I started playing drums and did that for years until I got bitten by the vocal bug and wanted to step out from behind the kit.
I asked that because singers that are also instrumentalists seem to have more of a hand in songwriting. I was wondering if playing guitar, or rather drums perhaps, has made you a stronger songwriter?
Oh! Well I do write a lot of my own songs and I’m very involved in all that stuff but I have to say, with Metal Church and Kurdt Vanderhoof, he’s always been the main songwriter. That’s kind of the angle that we took from the very start when I came in. I knew that and I really have never suggested anything musically. That’s his deal, and I like the way he writes. One of these days I’ll write something, send it to him and he’ll say “That sucks!” [laughs] He does all the songwriting in Metal Church, so we’ll leave it at that.
About the lyrics real quick- the David Wayne-era was more fantasy based or focused on random events and situations that he would come up with, whereas Mike Howe was very topical and political. With your lyrics, what do you try to address and what will you sing about on the upcoming album?
Well I’ll tell you what, I’ll try to keep it loose but I try to do basically a combination of both of those styles. My writing is kind of about everyday things, what’s going on the world, politics, religion, without being obvious. I try to get things out of my head that I want to say, and then occasionally there will be that song that is just about a raven, or a crow or something! I try to mix it up, and I don’t try to ever really stand on a soap box. I don’t think the fans ever want to be preached to, I touch on certain things like the Mike Howe-era did. I have to say this, both eras and all the way through, Kurdt did I would say over half of the lyrical writing for both the Dave and Mike eras. If you look at the credits, Kurdt has been very, very involved in this band from the start. He formed it, it is his band. He did the majority of the writing. Mike Howe did some writing, he got credit. Dave did some writing and got credit. But it’s always been Kurdt the majority of the time.
I knew that Kurdt was always involved in the music writing, you can see his name attached to 99% of all the Metal Church songs from all the eras, but I didn’t know he was that involved with lyrics!
Oh yeah, he wrote a lot of the best stuff.
Sometimes you could see that John Marshall [former guitarist] wrote a couple of the more thrashy songs during his time with the band, but otherwise it was Kurdt Vanderhoof all the way.
Well yeah, during that time there was John Marshall and Mike Howe along with the rest of the guys and they did have their input. But the mainstay was always Kurdt, I’ll just leave it at that.
I think I’ve kept you for way too long already, is there anything else you want to tell the Metal Church fans out there?
We just really appreciate the support, we’re going to put out the best possible record that we can, we’re working very hard on it, the songs are sounding great so be on the lookout for us. Stay in touch, we’ll keep you posted on metalchurchmusic.com, Metal Church Official Facebook, and you can also go to ronnymunroe.com, the Ronny Munroe Facebook, ReverbNation and all of that. We’re very good about updating what’s going on with the band. But thank you for the support, we really appreciate it and we hope to see everyone soon.