Martin van Drunen is a bona fide death metal legend, having sung on classic albums with PESTILENCE, briefly fronted BOLT THROWER, and released albums to recent acclaim with HAIL OF BULLETS and primary outfit ASPHYX. As ASPHYX prepare to release their third album since their reunion with van Drunen, we sat down to talk all things death metal, whether it be the past, present and future of the genre, or how to keep your growling voice in shape.
It’s been four and a half years since the release of Deathhammer. What’s been going on for ASPHYX during that time?
Martin: We were struggling at first because our drummer Bob Bagchus couldn’t really balance the band with his family and work any longer, and family comes first of course, so we were a little shocked. He told us that he didn’t want us to quit though and fortunately we were able to find a really good replacement in Stefan Hüskens who has been a longtime fan of the band and someone we’ve known for a long time because he plays for DESASTER who are friends of ours. Coincidentally DESASTER have been taking it easy because their guitar player Markus Kuschke just became a father, so Stefan had some time. The problem is that he lives quite far away from us so we can’t just drive to a practice room and jam a bit or practice the set, and our sets can be very extended with totally different songs each time so we need to practice a wide range of songs. So it took a long time until we had about thirty of fourty songs that we could play together. Then we had to work on the new album which again took time. It has been a ridiculously long time for a death metal album but it wasn’t easy.
As of recently you are no longer a member of HAIL OF BULLETS. Does this mean you have more time to be put towards ASPHYX?
Martin: It does, I can now completely focus on ASPHYX. Even though HAIL OF BULLETS had been taking it easy the last year, I was always doing a shitload of research for the lyrics. I had to find concepts and dig through all the work I needed to read. Reading is my next passion after making metal so I do read a lot of stuff, and with ASPHYX as well as HAIL OF BULLETS I get lots of inspiration from that.
How do you feel the new album compares to previous material?
Martin: It’s not really a word you’d associate with us but when I heard it through the first time I said to the boys that it seems like we’ve become more mature in a way, like a good wine. On this album there’s a lot more variety compared to Deathhammer which had plenty of faster tracks whereas here there’s only two fully fast tracks and the rest is mid-tempo or doom type tracks. Some of the melody lines Paul brought in blew me away, but it still sounds like us and we’ve not mellowed out.
Over the years in various different bands you’ve put your name to some of the most seminal death metal records going. Is there any that you’re particularly proud of?
Martin: This one! There are a few real good ones. Of course I’m really proud of Consuming Impulse by PESTILENCE still, along with the whole ASPHYX repertoire. Musically I prefer the first HAIL OF BULLETS because it was really raw and filthy but I’m also very proud of the concepts I wrote because they were a lot of work and I put everything into it. There’s no reason for me to be ashamed or embarrassed of anything I’ve achieved and I gave all of them my best so I am proud of all of them. It has never been about just needing to get it done, I’ve always done it out of joy and passion.
Lots of bands these days seem to be doing anniversary tours for certain albums playing them in full. Is that something ASPHYX would ever consider?
Martin: Usually people come up to us rather than the other way round. This year it’s 25 years since we brought out our first album The Rack, and we do have a very special idea that I can’t disclose right now, but it’s going to be something different. I think people are going to be surprised with what we do with The Rack, because we’re not going to be just touring it. I mean why should we, we’ve only just released this new one.
Do you feel like you have anything left you need to prove?
Martin: Not prove, no. What I like to do is just maintain the quality of the work that I do. If you read a lot like me or watch a lot of documentaries then there’s always a lot of topics you can take on so there’s always a kind of challenge. People considered Deathhammer to be a very good album and at that time I probably said it’s the best ASPHYX album ever, so it was a challenge here to see if we could top it. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of the boys for what we’ve made, and in a year or so there will be another challenge.
Once again on this album you have production from Dan Swanö. What is it that makes you keep going back to him?
Martin: He understands us. Once we deliver the raw material we let him free and let him surprise us, and he always works fast and understands what kind of sound works, and he’s also always very up to date with new developments related to his job like new techniques and equipment. He keeps it fresh without forgetting that our specific sound is the most important thing in our band.
Your voice is something that’s unique and recognisable in death metal while a lot of other vocalists may sound a bit generic and samey. How did you discover your own style and do you have any advice for young death metal singers looking to develop their own sound?
Martin: I really discovered my voice the way it is now during the recording of Consuming Impulse. We heard XECUTIONER which was pre-OBITUARY and thought “What the hell is this guy doing?”, and then the other guys were psyching me up saying I could top that so I just kept on screaming and screaming until they said “That’s the one.” I really learned the technique for that on tour. What I did on Malleus Maleficarum, the first PESTILENCE album, I was kind of pushing from my head so my arteries in my forehead would swell up and I’d get the most terrible headache, so I knew it was wrong. So I learned how to develop a technique pushing it from the belly which is apparently the way you should be doing it, and then I just needed to maintain that and train which I am still doing today. The main advice I can give to youngsters is that you need a lot of training because you can’t go on stage unprepared, and then secondly if you want to sound a little more unique compare yourself to others and try and find some originality. There’s the rhythms you place with your voice over riffs, you can try and be a little more imaginative with that. I’m very blues-orientated because I love a lot of old hard rock, and someone like Paul Rodgers from FREE, the kind of rhythms and soul these people put in the music I love. You can sing on drums, you can sing on guitar, but you always have to find the right feeling to put into it.
Do you have any practices to keep your voice in good condition?
Martin: Definitely. I have the privilege of being able to do it at home. My dad used to be in the air force, and one day he came back with a pilot helmet together with an oxygen mask. It pissed me off that I’d have to go away to a practice room or something, so I decided to dig in the basement to see if I could find something and I found that helmet. I tried it out and it worked great. If I don’t use it the neighbours would think I’m slaughtering pigs or something in here, so with this I can just stand in my living room and scream loud as hell. It looks silly but it works!
It seems like death metal fans are especially loyal to the bands that they love compared to some other groups of fans. Why do you think that loyalty has developed?
Martin: I’m speaking purely from my own experience, but I think these bands stand very close to their fans. We for example are easy to come up and talk to, we always come out before or after the show to talk to people, and I see a lot of bands that do exactly the same thing. That was always the thing back in the day. Even bands like IRON MAIDEN back in the beginning would be like that, and I think if you are loyal to your fans you get loyalty back. I see bands sometimes from other areas who piss on their fans, and if you do that you aren’t worth getting on stage.
It seems recently in death metal there’s been a lot more bands drawing from old school influences compared to five years ago when the landscape was largely super technical and clinical death metal bands. Why d’you think that might be?
Martin: You couldn’t listen to the technical crap! A lot of bands I meet and they’ll give me a CD to check out, and I have a big pile of them but I always listen no matter what. Most is just a massive blur and I can’t pick out anything from it. I’m making a shitload of noise too with ASPHYX but at least the songs have some kind of a structure. A lot of these people have a hundred thousand riffs in a song and you can’t figure out anything. They don’t arrange anything, it’s just a mess they call a song. When you play a song live, if people are able to recognise the song quickly by a certain riff or line or something they love that. These bands don’t have that.
Do you think there’s a limit then to how extreme you can be?
Martin: If you think about the old grindcore scene, when you had NAPALM DEATH coming up and also bands like RIPCORD or ELECTROHIPPIES, there was an extremity there which had not been reached until that point, but it’s not really been done again.
Where do bands go from here then?
Martin: I don’t really think about pushing boundaries, I just do this out of a love for metal music, but I think every band has to find it out for themselves. Of course you can just play really loud. Volume is of course very important for metal but nowadays you can have all these restrictions. Maybe there’s some sanity in there but once I saw SLAYER at a festival and I was able to talk to someone while standing two yards from the PA. That’s not fucking SLAYER. Some people consider volume to be extremity, for some people it’s the speed, but that’s been done too. I think for a lot of bands it’s mixing new ideas. Bands will mix stoner stuff with blast beats, bands with jazz influences, really brutal death metal bands with opera singers. That’s where new ideas can spring from.
Do you have any favourite new bands who have impressed you recently?
Martin: I do but they are mainly very old school. There’s a couple here in the Netherlands like BODYFARM and ENTRAPMENT. There’s a lot of cool stuff coming out of Quebec in Canada where often I can’t understand the lyrics because it’s in French but it will remind me of old REPULSION or AUTOPSY. SKELETAL REMAINS from the US I like, and there’s always tonnes more who you watch when you’re playing somewhere and you can be surprised all the time. As long as they have the right attitude it works for me.
Any plans for ASPHYX to come to the UK soon?
Martin: No dates confirmed yet but yeah, we are coming.
Last question to close off, there’s a recent promo picture for ASPHYX where you are holding a scythe. Do you get that stuff given to you on the day of the shoot or do you just have it lying around at home?
Martin: I thought it was an axe! It’s always a bit of fun to be bloody clichés. I think it was a friend of Paul’s who had that scythe and let us use it. I used to have some stuff like that but it’s all in the basement. Just fighter pilot helmets.
Incoming Death is set for release on September 30th via Century Media Records.
For more information on ASPHYX like their official page on Facebook.