Interview by Nathan Hernandez
Ever since their resurrection in 2007, Dutch death-doom pioneers Asphyx have been as inspired and powerful as they’ve ever been in their three-decade history, as proven by post-reunion albums ‘Death … The Brutal Way’ (2009) and ‘Deathhammer’ (2012). Fast-forward to 2016, Asphyx have been hard at work on the follow-up effort, and are finally ready to unveil their ninth full-length studio record ‘Incoming Death’ via Century Media Records on September 30th 2016. Our writer Nathan Hernandez recently spoke to vocalist Martin van Drunen at length about the album and much more. Enjoy the in-depth conversation below and while you’re at it, listen to the crushing new Asphyx track embedded within.
So, first things first, we have to talk about the new record ‘Incoming Death’. It’s very rare for me to be blown away by a newer death metal record. But this album does it for me. It’s been four years since ‘Deathhammer’. Why did it take so long to put out a new record? Generally, I think that’s a good thing because usually you get a quality release like with ‘Incoming Death’.
Yeah true, but normally the thing is, Asphyx would take two years for an album which I think is OK for a death metal band. If you were to name a good progressive band like Rush, I think those guys need a little bit more time since they are fantastic musicians, but we are playing death metal or death/doom or whatever. The reason it took us four years was of course we had to deal with the fact that Bob couldn’t play in the band anymore , as he wanted to spend more time with his family, which is normal if you have children, so first we had to look for a replacement. Luckily for us, it became Husky from Desaster and he was actually the only one that really fitted in well. First thing he had to deal with was to learn the whole repertoire. He is an Asphyx fan and always has been, so he knew the songs, but it’s different to play it with the band live and in the practice room. We have a huge range of songs that we choose from to play live and we never want to have the same set over and over, like some bands do. You just get boring and then you just want to surprise your fans like, “Wow, they never played that song before”. So it took us overall I think one-and-a-half to two years till Husky knew like thirty songs, and it’s also because he’s a German and we are all Dutch. So for him to practice it takes like a three or four hour drive. So he couldn’t practice like “Oh let’s meet on a Thursday evening and go for it”. So it wasn’t all that easy. In total, writing the whole album and finishing it, that’s what took us like two years and all the rest was focusing on the live shows and doing all kinds of stuff and learning together all the old material we play live. So that’s why it took four years. But as you said, we took our time too. It’s not like we go “Now the world or our fans need another Asphyx record”. It’s just when you are ready and you think you have really good material to deliver a good album where everybody is happy about. First of all the band itself and then you should really start think about recording things. Otherwise it’s just like, put a record on the market and that’s it, but no, that’s not how it works for us.
What I really like about this record is it’s quality death metal. Do you feel this record is a natural progression since ‘Death … The Brutal Way’?
Yes, very much. I can say a lot but I think it is because if you compare it with the songwriting of Paul, and also especially on this one where they improved the production and the mastering and the mixing and the overall sound together with Dan. They really worked a lot on it this time and took their time also, and I think it wasn’t as easy but we did improve from the sound of ‘Deathhammer’ too. We created the sound that’s so important to Asphyx, to have that Asphyx sound and that Asphyx atmosphere but yeah, it did evolve if you can call it that, for a band like us.
You know, my problem with a lot of modern death metal bands is that there is no focus on the atmosphere or the songwriting. Do you feel that’s like a problem with the modern bands in general?
I think so. There are certain younger bands I really like. A lot of people come after shows to see me and they say “Hey, this is my band, here’s a CD” and I always do listen to it and most of it I’m like “meh”. You know, it doesn’t really get me excited. They try hard but there’s something just missing. Something you miss is kind of a song structure, it’s not that difficult to write a song with a kind of a structure that you can actually just recognize. So this is a song and it’s different from the other songs that you wrote but it’s still a song too. For us that’s very important, because the bands that we like ourselves and still listen to, they did that too, you know. May that be old Venom, Possessed, Slayer or Celtic Frost or something, or Motorhead or Kiss, it doesn’t really matter. With all the songs these bands were creating, they had a kind of a structure and we just have that in ourselves too. For this album we didn’t plan to write a fast song a slow song, it’s very natural and in the end we were lucky this album turned out with a lot of variety. We have fast songs, we have up-tempo pace, heavy metal pace, we got doom paces and all that kind of stuff in it, and it was not even planned, it was not intentional. It was just spontaneous instinct kind of feeling that Asphyx has in the band. I miss that sometimes with a lot of bands. It’s hard for them to get their own style and get a kind of sound that’s very recognizable. What’s important is that a lot of singers really sound alike and you put them on and you can’t hear the difference between the singer I just heard and the other one. It’s not that I want to talk about the whole “good ol’ times” and all of that but there was a really big difference. You could really hear people like Jeff Becerra or you can hear it’s Tom Araya, John Tardy or you can hear it’s me or Chuck Schuldiner. You can name all these brutal vocalists but they all have their particular kind of voice and you can hear that’s them, that’s their style, their voice and that’s what I miss sometimes with vocalists nowadays.
The title ‘Incoming Death’, if I remember correctly, you said was a reference to incoming shelling like if you were in the trenches hearing the artillery coming. The Song ‘Division Brandenburg’, is that about the German Special Forces unit during WWII?
Exactly, the reason I came up with this was the beginning of the song has a sort of a twilight riff and I thought “Wow, this is a fantastic way of styling it”. I have a fantastic book written in German by a German author who wrote about it, and I was just blown away by what this first commando unit really did and how trained and well-equipped they were, and also how high the casualties were and they are completely forgotten. Because everything was completely secret and probably the highest decorated soldiers in the whole German army really, they were trained in more than just one language so after the war they just slipped away into another country knowing the language and just vanished. So yeah, it’s about that.
Is the song ‘Eisenbahnmörser’ about the Paris gun? Or what is that song about?
‘Morser’ means mortar and ‘Eisenbahn’ means railroad, so it was a railroad mortar. The Germans had these huge mortars and huge railway guns. That’s what it’s about. They only used it on siege of the Russian city of Sevastopol because of its fortification they could only bomb with those guns. The guns were too plump, way too expensive and vulnerable for air attacks. But it’s something you see coming and it’s like “what the hell is this shit!” (laughs)
To go back a bit, in 2008 is when you came back to Asphyx. For people that don’t know they did a record ‘On the Wings of Inferno’ in 2000, so it was a while before Asphyx got moving again. How did that all come together?
Basically, Party-San Festival, which is an extreme festival in the Eastern part of Germany, they only do death metal and some black and some thrash, so all of the extreme things. No nu-metal, no whatever, there’s no heavy metal there. There’s no poser crap, it’s really just a true kind of festival. The promoter ask the visitors which band do you prefer to seen next year, and for years it was Asphyx on number one. So they kept on mailing us like all the time and asking us what we think. We would say “It’s impossible because you know Eric is not going to play. He’s completely not into it”. Until we found Paul and the first thing Bob thought, “No, without Eric it’s not going to happen”. and I agreed with him but then we were like, why not give it a try at least, and then Paul just blew us away with the sound and all we had to do was ask Wannes again back because he did a good job in the band and always been very loyal and that’s how we did it. Then we said, “OK, let’s just do this 2007 Party-San show then and that’s it”. But then the whole thing was just so overwhelming, it was like a roller coaster we got into and never got out. Now, it still keeps on rolling. We had no idea what we set in motion for ourselves and for the fans. From that moment on, it was all about show offers and everyone wanted to see us in every country in the world and every continent. And then we slowly had this ‘Death … The Brutal Way’ single out and we thought “Well, OK, why don’t we try and make an album?” That’s how it became the first Asphyx album since 2000. From there, as I said, it just kept on going, and yeah we like what we do and from what we hear from the fans, they really like that we are back and not disappointing them since ‘Death … The Brutal Way’ at all. So that’s where we are now.
Asphyx was one of the first death/doom bands. I’ve always been curious about what the band’s biggest influences were when it came to doom?
Well, definitely older Black Sabbath, but also the Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio and then there’s Trouble, who are now going under the name of The Skull. You’ve got Winter as a doom band and probably St. Vitus too. I was really pleased actually that some of those bands came out to see us at festivals. So yeah, there you got a few of the doom things. And of course, what people forget sometimes when they talk about death metal is that it has a lot of doom influences too. Back in those days a lot of death metal bands used just like simple slow parts. It was part of the whole genre. But I think that’s where you get the main doom influences, and perhaps Hellhammer had some doom stuff too. But yeah, those are the main influences, unless I’m forgetting anything. Well, may be the first Paradise Lost album too, but that came out at the same time we started.
So, how was the scene in the Netherlands during the late ’80s and early ’90s? I know Thanatos started in ’84, Asphyx in ’87 and Pentacle in ’89. How was the general scene during those times?
For us it was great, but the thing was, there was not that many death metal bands having contact with each other. But I’m talking basically about the time I was starting in Pestilence because we were one of the pioneers, you know, and Pestilence was the first band that got more famous. That’s a big word but the name got abroad and outside of the country. We did pack venues here in the Netherlands too, which nowadays is really hard for a Dutch band because everyone goes “Yeah, you have them again”. But we did play in the west of the country for like 700 people. Sold out all the time here in our home town. So what was really cool there was that the Dutch crowd was really following and supporting their bands. It seems nowadays that has faded a bit. I don’t know why. I have no explanation for that. In the beginning there were not that many bands and they came a little bit later, may be like in the ’90s or something. Back then it was really only death metal bands or death thrash, whatever you wanna call it. It was really only Thanatos and Pestilence from the beginning and then straight after came Asphyx, more or less. There were a few other smaller bands there was Deadend from the South and then the guys from Deadhead came up, and Altar and all that stuff. Bands like Sinister was already somewhere in the ’90s. That was already two or three years later.
It’s a shame you guys aren’t getting a lot of support in your own country.
Yeah, it is weird. I don’t wanna slag them all off, because there were a few shows like the one we did in the north. It was fantastic, it was sold out, and there’s this smaller festival called Stonehenge and I thought it was just fantastic. Sometimes you do things and you just notice that the people that are really freaking out are all the people that are from abroad who come and watch you. It could be the Germans, Italians or the Spanish, and the other ones they go like “Oh no, let’s just wait for Morbid Angel.” That’s maybe inherent in the Dutch. As soon a band gets big, they think oh we get arrogant or we get like a rock star attitude, which is absolutely not the case. Another band that’s a completely different genre, you might like them but they are really big outside the Netherlands, is Legion of The Damned, and sometimes when we meet them we talk about that and they face exactly the same problem. Just like Asphyx, they hardly play in their own country because of it. May be a very good example is a few years ago, like Hail Of Bullets we decided to play one show in one year in the Netherlands. We went and picked out the Dynamo venue then, which is famous nationwide, really. OK, we looked forward to it but in the end there was like only a hundred and fifty people. That was just really disappointing, it’s really disappointing for your own country but that’s just a small example.
That’s really weird. I hear it from bands in the United States too because people won’t support them. If they’re from LA for example, and play locally, sometimes they don’t get a lot of people going to their shows.
Maybe for the U.S it’s the same then. They only like the exotic bands like from abroad. Over here, bands like Obituary for example, or Suffocation, every tour they do in the club circuit every evening is packed with like three or four hundred people. So for them it goes really well. I have no idea how that would be if they tour the United States, you know. But over here the people are really happy and enjoying their shows. And of course, why not?
I know it’s probably hard to tour the United States because you guys have jobs and the general crap you have to go through, but do you think the in the future we’ll see like a tour? Like hit like New York, Chicago, LA, and Texas kinda thing for a quick mini-tour?
In fact, funny that you mention it because were working on it next year in April. I have no idea what exactly the plan is, and as you said the other guys have their jobs, but last year we did something similar in South America all over the continent which was incredibly exhausting but was well worth it. The people were just fucking insane and great and just so grateful we were there. So that worked, and we thought like, OK if that worked for South America why not try and set up something for the United States as well? So that’s what we’re working on now for next year and hopefully if the guys get like two weeks off work or something, we can play like ten shows, and just like you said, play the main cities on the whole continent like Chicago, Los Angeles, maybe Portland or Houston, or I don’t know, it depends on the promoters that wanna work with us and want to book us, which cities are interesting to do and not, where there’s a bad turnout or something. I can imagine there’s not too many people coming out to see us in Memphis, Tennessee or something (laughs). We are working on it definitely, and hopefully it will happen.
To go back to the old days a bit, how did you get recruited into Asphx after you left Pestilence? I was looking up fanzines and interviews but I couldn’t find anything. Were you looking for bands or did they contact you?
Well I was already in contact with Bob for a long time when we were actually trading tapes. We met each other quickly, he was a bit younger than me and he still actually had to go to high school. So then he called me because there was no email back in those days so he was like “So can you meet me, because I’ve got a couple of interesting tapes for you.” I was like “Yeah, I have some for you too”. So we have always been in contact. So the first thing that he did when I was out of Pestilence was he called me and asked me to join Asphyx. He had the chance and he was going to grab it and I was like “Okay, let’s do it”. Then I went in the rehearsal room and the fucking volume was just incredible and that’s what I like. I liked it when it was really loud and Eric I thought the amp was on ten. This is really what I like, so I got to go for it and that’s how it happened. Really fast and really quick.
Some people may not know, but you played bass in the early days and sang. I’ve always wondered why you have decided just to sing now?
Well, because I’m more confident. The thing is what people forget is when I was in Pestilence I was supposed to be only the vocalist and they couldn’t find a bass player. So after a few weeks they said “Here you go here’s the bass”. I had never played the damn instrument before, but they told me to “start learning”. I was like, damn, that’s not what I had in mind. Six weeks later I had my first show with doing bass and vocals, and I could only play E. So it was like really crap. Fortunately I learned quite quick by the time I joined Asphyx. I was really able to compose songs and the bass sound was thriving with the drums, so that worked really well. When I joined Bolt Thrower, of course you’ve got Benchy on the bass so no point in playing bass there. I felt really comfortable on stage as just a front man, so I just left it that way. You can only focus on one thing at the same time which is always a lot better. So let me just be the vocalist, that’s basically what I had in mind and was my intention when I joined Pestilence, so back to what I actually wanted. I still feel very, very comfortable in doing so.
Well, that’s very interesting. Thanks for enlightening me on the subject. The Netherlands is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since my fascination with WWII history and Operation Market Garden and such. What’s your favorite military history story regarding the Netherlands?
That would be the victory over the Spanish. That’s not WWII but it’s the Eighty Years war with the Spanish and finally beating them and kicking them out of the country. Because they were Christianizing us and eighty years long we were occupied sometime in the 1600s. So the Eighty Years war is the one of the greatest things we have when it comes to national pride and it was a complete victory. Europe was divided into all kinds of small nations. They were waging war on each other like Germany used to be a country that was divided into a lot of smaller countries and constantly making war, and it’s quite interesting. You have the war between the Russians, the Germans, and the Swedes and then you have the Vandals. It was one big mess. We had a really long war with the English too. It was like the hundred years war and all these kinds of things, and one victory was over the Spanish armada. We just ruined their complete navy and then we started conquering the world and sailing everywhere.
Before I let you go since we’re running out of time, I’d like to mention that I loved the Rommel Chronicles and I always thought someone should write an album about Rommel and you did it.
The cool thing is I read a shit lot about WWII and may be the one who deserves the most credit is (Heinz) Guderian, but it was just Rommel storming through France with that Ghost Division of his and just to imagine him reaching the coast, and all he does is send the message back to the Berlin headquarters and send “I’m at coast”. That’s all he coded to them. I was always fascinated by that man. You later read he was not a war criminal or something, he was not a murderer, he was a soldier. He treated prisoners really well. He may have been a Nazi and admirer of Hitler but he was not a butchering murderer like a lot of the SS were. He was treating the people really well and that’s why I can make a concept of this man because he was a very good general, very good at strategy and a tactician, and that was it. Let’s just say he was similar to people like Hannibal or Attila the Hun, great conquerors. It was very intriguing, the life of this man. I have all kinds of books, even his own written books, and it was very fantastic to read.
Our time has come to an end. Any last words for the fans you before we end this interview?
First, thank you very much for the interview. I would like to thank all of the American fans for all the support throughout the years. Well hopefully we’ll finally come over for a few days and not just Maryland, because that’s the only place we have ever played. We hope to tour the U.S. in 2017 if we manage to make it happen. So we hope to see you there and have a beer!
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