WORDS: Jack Fermor-Worrell
HELL have been flying the flag of British heavy metal since the 1980s and as the genre embraced the modern age, the band have stuck to their roots at what makes heavy metal so intoxicating. We caught up with guitarist and renown producer Andy Sneap to talk about HELL‘s musical style, the reunion of the band in 2008, the resurgence of NWOBHM and his track record as a producer.
It’s been a little while since we’ve heard from HELL – you had the tour in Feb/March and a few summer festivals, but that seems pretty much it. What have you guys been up to recently?
Andy: Not a lot really. I’ve been out in the States working, and I’ve had AMON AMARTH in the studio for the last two months, so it’s been a bit quiet on the actual band front unfortunately. We’ve done a bit of writing – there’s sort of six songs we’ve got kicking around in demo form at the moment. There’s obviously the show on the 7th that we’re doing with ACCEPT, and then at the start of the year we’re looking to start putting the album together in earnest really. So, it’s been quiet really, but that’s kind of the nature of the beast with my production work – there’s not much we can do about it really.
Have you got any date in mind for when we might be able to hear any of the new material?
Andy: No, I’d quite like a date to be able to hear it too, haha! Y’know, we’ve got ideas, but I was aiming to get an album completed by the end of this year. It’s just that I’ve been so busy on the production front that we’ve not had time to be able to do it. I think we’re probably looking at the middle of 2016 to get the album finished, so whether we can or not, I’m not in a rush. It’s got to be right before we release anything so I’d rather take my time than just pump out an album every couple of years. We’re a bit late if I’m honest!
How would you describe the overall sound of the new stuff you’ve got so far? Similar to Curse and Chapter and Human Remains?
Well, the stuff Kev’s [guitar, keyboards] been writing is quite sort-of film score-ish in a way really, with the keyboards and the atmospheric stuff. My stuff’s always a bit more straightforward and a bit more foot-to-the-floor metal really. So that’s good really because we’ve got very different ways of writing, and I think Dave’s [vocals] voice really ties everything together. You know, take Dave’s voice on the last record – there’s quite a wide landscape of music going on there that you couldn’t really pin down to any particular genre. There’s some quite progressive stuff, there’s some thrash stuff, some quite traditional stuff; and I think that a voice like Dave’s that’s so characteristic, you can put it on any kind of rock or metal and it’ll make the whole thing gel. So we’re kind of fortunate in that respect, and I think the next album we do is really going to take off from we’ve been doing like Something Wicked… and Darkhangel and End Ov Days, that sort of vibe really. It’s taking that one step further really, I think.
Curse and Chapter was received pretty well overall, so would you say you feel challenged to try and exceed that now?
Andy: Erm, no, not really. I think this is the first proper HELL album where, obviously, we haven’t had to rely on old material. We’ve always had that bit of a safety net obviously with the first record, where the songs were already written. Half of them were on the second record too. But, you know, I’m a bit long in the tooth to feel challenged. I’m 46 now, and with so many albums behind me, I feel like I kind of know how to make a record now. And also, having that mentality of not putting it out until it’s right – we haven’t got a label there saying “It’s got to be out on this date, you’ve got this deadline”. We’re our own bosses on that front really, so if it’s not right, we just won’t put it out. I just want to get ten or eleven good songs together where we feel it’s up to the mark, and up to the standard of the last two albums we’ve put out. And then we’ll just release it, if it takes a year or two then that’s just how long it takes. The music business moves so fast at the moment that we can just spring back into it. I think it’ll take most of next year to be honest, with recording and writing to get this thing together and up to standard. There’s a lot of detail and a lot of fine tuning to a HELL record – as you can tell. The songs aren’t a standard layout, it’s quite complicated to be able to do it and get it up to that level.
In terms of your role on the records, who would you say particularly inspires you in your songwriting, if anyone?
Andy: Erm, I’ve always just listened to the older albums that I grew up with; the BLACK SABBATH albums, the early JUDAS PRIEST albums, MERCYFUL FATE, ACCEPT, RAINBOW – all that sort of thing. Kev’s into that sort of thing too but he’s more into SCHENKER and RUSH, and he likes some more of the modern stuff. We’re not really taking influences too much though; we’re just writing what we kind of like. And if it’s a good piece of music, if it sounds like THIN LIZZY or it sounds like METALLICA, it doesn’t matter. I mean, you can always try to pigeonhole whatever you write into a certain style, but we kind of just write and if it feels like HELL then we roll with it. And I think, like we’ve said, putting Dave’s voice on it gives it that HELL stamp anyway because it’s so unique and individual. There are some times when we’re writing and certain kinds of styles appear in the guitar playing – there’ll be a certain chord or chord sequence that we don’t think is very HELL-ish. So we’ll pull it apart and make it more note-y and weirder to fit in. But, I tend to write in a more standard approach and then bastardize it later to make it feel more like HELL, because I think it’s an easier way to write. It gives you a wider scope to where the vocals are going to sit, and put the icing on afterwards if you know what I mean. Kev will come in with quite a complicated idea and we’ll try to jam it all in. So there’s two very different ways of writing within what we do.
Do you feel like that whole ‘classic/NWOBHM’ style of metal has seen any kind of a resurgence recently?
Andy: I think so, yeah. I mean, some of these ‘retro’ bands coming up, I don’t see us as that, but I think a lot of people are turning back to older albums now because of the quality of songwriting in a way. I think those 80s albums have really stood the test of time because some of them were pretty much pop. When you listen to those JUDAS PRIEST albums from British Steel onwards, the arrangements and key changes were very almost chart-oriented in a way. And it was just good basic songwriting really, you know, the way they were working. And even before British Steel actually. But I think it’s just a good theory of music and actually having some melody in the music, rather than just shouting vocals as well I think. It’s refreshing now, I think we’ve all been through that phase of the heaviness and I think everyone’s reaching out for a bit more in the music really. And I think, if you’ve got a good vocalist on top of it then it’s another instrument and another string to your bow. I think people are missing that a little bit and realizing that the 80s weren’t actually as bad as they remember. I mean, you put that first DIO album on now and it’s timeless – those songs are still great, y’know? The IRON MAIDEN albums from back then are just far superior and I just think that bands that were around then have lost the way a little bit and got caught up in songs that are over-long and just not as well-arranged. I think it’s the naivety of it back then, they were just trying to write something they believed in and they liked, and I think that is the essence of it really.
Do you think some of those older bands have become almost complacent in a way?
Andy: I don’t think complacent, but I do think as you get older and your vision of the music industry becomes more coloured you lose the naivety, you begin to write within your own style. And I’ve seen that with bands that I’ve worked with – it’s got like this because “…this is what it was like when we had all the hits”. They’re almost trying to recapture the magic – and the magic was the fact they weren’t thinking about what they were doing, whereas now they’re over-thinking it, and just over-analysing everything. I’ve seen bands that have a really good idea and they’ve just blown it because they have just over-thought the whole thing and they’re trying to make it something that they think it should be. They’ve lost that spark because they’re doing that. It’s not complacent – it’s lack of focus I think, and not having the right people working with them to direct that as well.
How did the whole initial reunion come about for HELL?
Andy: It’s a long story really – I obviously knew them back in the early 80s, I used to follow them round when I was a kid. And it was Dave Halliday, the original singer and guitar player, who taught me to play guitar when I was twelve years old; I had lessons with him for years. He died in 1987 and left all of his rights to the songs to me in his will, so I’d always had these songs hanging around and these old cassettes of them. I’d always had this idea of recording his music just because I thought the songs were great, I thought the band were way ahead of the time. I’d lost touch with Kev, we didn’t know where he’d gone; but I’d kept in touch with Tim, the drummer, and Tony, the band’s bassist – we’d see each other occasionally in the local scene and have a chat. I was actually working out in Florida at the time, when this person pops up on my instant messenger and it was Kev’s son Tom, saying “Oh, my Dad says he knows you”. And I think Kev had seen my name on all of Tom’s albums because he was a metalhead and said “Oh this kid used to come and see us back in the day”. And Tom was trying to prove his Dad wrong so he got in touch with me, and so we finally found Kev again. And so, when I got back to England I got the three of them back together, and it was like twenty years down the line. We’d end up at weekends down in the studio here just jamming on the old ideas, talking about old times and sharing a few drinks; and slowly over three years we put the first album together and started recording it for a bit of fun – really just for ourselves, and so we had instant recordings to give to our friends. It wasn’t until Dave came down to do a voiceover on Plague and Fire and started singing along that we realized we’d found a guy that could actually sing these songs, because Dave Halliday was always in that higher Geddy Lee/Rob Halford register with his vocals, he was a very high pitched singer. And Dave Bower had seen Dave Halliday so many times that he knew exactly what it needed. It worked out great, and once we’d got Dave in there as the missing piece of the puzzle, obviously Nuclear Blast picked the album up and we just went from there. So we didn’t really have a game-plan but it all just came together bit-by-bit, and we rolled with it because we just wanted to have some fun. And it just went on and on, so obviously we started taking it a bit more seriously.
Was there any apprehension from you about joining the band itself when the whole thing got restarted?
Andy: Not really – I mean, I’d obviously done the SABBAT thing for years, and just being able to be in a band with a group of guys where we got on so well and whose music I’d grown up listening to was a bit of a no-brainer really when they asked me. I mean, they needed another guitarist to do it anyway, and David taught me so I’ve very much got his style of playing – it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I really think that myself and Dave Bower, two guys that were very close to the inner circle of the band in the first place; they couldn’t really have got anyone better to do it. But there was no apprehension, it’s been a lot of fun if I’m honest. I never thought I’d get the chance to go out and play on big tours to big crowds at festivals again, so it’s been a great chance to do that.
How does being in HELL now compare to what it was like being in SABBAT? Is it even possible to make that comparison?
Andy: Well, if I’m honest I prefer it. It’s a lot easier-going, a lot less stress. And we made mistakes with SABBAT you know, bad business decisions, because we were young and it was an expensive time to be in a band in the 80s. And I learned a lot of what I know in business now, then at a young age, so we haven’t made the same mistakes with Hell. It was kind of a whole second chance to do it with HELL and, well, not spend a shit load of cash if I’m honest with you. So it’s been good, because I’ve got the knowledge and the hindsight really of not making any of the same mistakes.
Going back again slightly, HELL are known now for being quite a theatrical live band – David especially. Has putting on an extravagant live show like that always been a goal for you as a band?
Andy: Well it always was with HELL – they always did have the theatrics and the pyro, the sort-of larger than life show on a budget. And it still is. But, we always said really it was a way of emphasizing the themes in the songs, and you want to be entertained live; just hearing people’s reactions when they see Dave walking on-stage on the stilts, you can almost see the crowd gasp when he does it. It’s just another string to your bow I think – if you’ve got a frontman who can do that kind of thing, and a band that’s putting that effort into the image and ideas of the band, I just think it makes the whole package stronger. And people want to be entertained – if I was going to see a band, I’d love to go and see us, to be honest.
I know it’s probably still at least a year away now, but will there be a new ramped-up stage production to go with the new album?
Andy: Well, production’s always down to budget, you’ve got to try and make it fit within a certain frame really. We’ve always got ideas, there’s always these little ideas knocking about. And all the stuff you’re seeing on stage is stuff that Kev’s built, because he’s a carpenter as well. So all the stage set, the ideas are all drunken nights coming up with stupid ideas. We will put as much in as possible, there’s one or two ideas that we want to work on but we haven’t got them quite planned out yet. It’ll definitely be as much of a show as we can do though. It’s down to the venues as well really – obviously you can’t have pyro in some venues, whereas outdoor festivals are a bit easier. But even then, you’ve still got to jump through hoops to get permission and get fire officers in to sort everything out. There’s a lot of behind the scenes organization that goes into anything of that sort of scale. But the plan is to keep the whole stage set there and keep it all entertaining.
You mentioned before, the London Forum show with ACCEPT you’ve got coming up. Will that be a case of just bringing as much of the setup as you can?
Andy: Yeah, I mean, with the support slots you’re only allowed a certain amount. And we try to put as much light and smoke as we can, but obviously we can’t do the pyros in that particular venue – it’s impossible to sort that out. But, for a support slot, we’re definitely going to do as much as we can.
Obviously you’ve also made quite a name for yourself as a producer over the years. How did that first come about?
Andy: That was really just through my own stuff – after SABBAT had split up, I’d got a bit of money left over; I was actually selling guitars in Nottingham at that point, working in a guitar store there. We had a recording department in the shop there, and I’d bought a little eight-track reel-to-reel machine that I had in the old rehearsal room where we used to rehearse. I was demoing bands up there and doing my own demos back in the very early 90s. I sort-of got a bit of a name for myself in the local area doing these demos – I’d do these little vinyl things for hardcore bands and punk bands that were knocking around. And then I started working at a bigger 24-track studio in Nottingham, Square Centre Studios – I was the metal guy there, whenever a metal band came to the engineer there. And I started working with Colin Richardson down there actually. We got on well, and then by the end of 1996 I was out in San Francisco and L.A. working, and I’ve kind-of not looked back since then. If you’ve got a good work ethic in this business, I think, you’ll just keep on going – just get the albums out on time and do the work people want and they’ll keep coming back.
Have you got much lined up for the immediate future in that respect that you’re allowed to mention?
Andy: Well, I’ve literally just finished the AMON AMARTH album, been doing that for the past six weeks – that’s coming out at the start of next year. I’m doing a record with Stuck Mojo at the moment; working with DESPISED ICON. That’s about it to be honest with you – there’s a possible album at the start of next year I might be working on, but I can’t really comment on that just yet. I think I’m just focusing on the HELL stuff aside from that – the London show’s obviously first, and then probably some more songwriting. That’s the plan, just put a bit more time into my own stuff.
You’ve worked with the likes of ACCEPT, MEGADETH and TESTAMENT in a producer role, but would you say you have a favourite experience as a record producer over the years?
Andy: I’ve had a good time doing it all in general, honestly. I’ve made a lot of close friends in the music business. And just, seeing for example, the success of ACCEPT coming back together. I was a big fan of them growing up and seeing them from when they were just getting back together, going on to headlining in Germany to 20,000 people – being one of the integral guys behind that, getting them signed and everything, feels pretty special really. That’s probably one of the best bits for me, when you see the whole big picture finally come together – it’s a wonderful feeling.
HELL support ACCEPT at the London Forum on December 7th.