Interview with Mem von Stein (ex-Exumer, ex-Phobic Instinct, ex-Humongous Fungus, ex-Of Rytes, Sun Descends)
Interview and Wacken 2001 live pictures
by Luxi Lahtinen
I?m quite damn positive many of you who went through the ?80s and became totally fascinated by many Speed ? and Thrash Metal bands at that time both from the American and European soils, are still easily able to remember such fine pieces of Thrash Metal as POSSESSED BY FIRE and RISING FROM THE SEA; definitely the two relentless and kick-ass albums from the German thrashers Exumer.
Mem von Stein was the singer on the first Exumer record POSSESSED BY FIRE and right after that album his ways departed from the rest of his other band members. What happened to Mem after Exumer, you may curiously ask? Besides moving to New York in late ?98, Mem also played in such groups as Phobic Instinct, Humongous Fungus, Of Rytes after Exumer – and finally formed Sun Descends in New York in 2000.
But without prolonging your burning curiosity more about him and his past ? and recent activities in the music scene, let?s get to the interview I had a pleasure to do with him almost recently.
FROM THE PAST TIMES? FROM EXUMER TO OF RYTES
First off, what do you think of Exumer now, after several since the split up of the band? I mean, what kind of recollections do you have about your 1st Thrash Metal band Exumer?
I am very proud about our accomplishments. We were basically a bunch of thrashing kids who evolved very quickly into a serious band. I must say that it was much easier back then to get a break in regards to solid record deals and production budgets. I am amazed about how fast things took off and how much we took things for granted. I think that we assumed things in the music industry and Metal would stay the way they were back then. We were very, very wrong. No hard feelings though, those were the best years for Thrash and Exumer.
Exumer basically got started when you met Ray in a Slayer show in the summer of ?85 and suggested him whether he would like to form a strongly influenced Thrash Metal band with you and… well, the rest is history! Anyways, how did you eventually find Syke for drums and Bernie for the 2nd guitar to complete the Exumer line-up?
Syke used to play in a band with me called Tartaros. We recorded one demo at the end of 1984. We broke up because we thought the recording was really bad. We didn?t think that anyone would like it. I recently listened to the recording with my friend, His Eminence the Wicked, from Terror of the Trees and we had good laugh. Anyway, Syke was a natural choice for me to ask playing drums in Exumer. Bernie replaced Paul, who ended up singing on the second Exumer album, because Paul could not devote enough time to the band. Ray used to work with Bernie and brought him to our rehearsal room one day. Bernie never left the band after that rehearsal and our line-up was complete.
In 1985 you recorded MORTAL IN BLACK demo which obviously was the one that landed a record deal for you with Disaster Records (a sub-label of SPV ?division). Are you still able to remember what other labels showed some interest toward that particular demo at that time?
The demo was received with mixed reactions from press and labels. Some were excellent and others thought the demo sucked. We got our record deal because of our live shows. The label manager of Desaster Records went to our second live show. We played with Warfare from England and a German band called Backwater who was also on Desaster Records at the time. The label boss was so blown away by the ruckus we caused that night that he offered us a deal right after the gig.
By the way, was the band the one that was actively circulating that demo around for labels and magazines ? or was it mostly spread by the tape trading people back in the day who surely helped to get Exumer?s name on many peoples lips all around the whole world in a very appreciated and thankful way?
I think it was both. The guy who ran Celtic Frost?s Necromantic Union, Ralf Ludwig, became our first manager and sold a bunch of tapes. We never saw any money, but he sold lots of tapes. Then there were tape traders who did their part to spread the word.
How was it to record your debut album POSSESSED BY FIRE for Disaster Records in 1986 anyway? You recorded it at Musiclab Studios in Berlin back in the day in which f.ex. Kreator did their 1st two albums ENDLESS PAIN (in ?85) and PLEASURE TO KILL (?87) and Sodom recorded PERSECUTION MANIA (?87) and AGENT ORANGE (?89) albums. At that time, that particular studio seemed to be a real hotspot for many German Speed/Thrash Metal.bands to record their albums, so I assume when you even hired Harris Johns to produce it, you had quite an extraordinary package in your hands. Do you agree?
It was very cool how that whole thing went down because the label arranged everything in terms of booking the studio and hiring our producer Harris Johns. We were so young and inexperienced but Harris knew what to do. He basically cut and pasted the record and all we had to do was to play our parts. It was a learning experience all the way.
How well do you think POSSESSED BY FIRE has stood the test of time compared to some Speed/Thrash Metal albums that have been released in 2-thousand-and-something?
I think it did stand the test of time, but that is primarily due to the lack of inspiration that records coming out have these days. How about some ?fire?? You know what the best Metal record of 2004 was for me? Mot?rhead?s INFERNO! The man still writes inspired songs with lots of cojones. Say what you will, but all that separates the good records from back then and now is the fire. You have so much more technology than in the ?80s but where are the songs, where is the inspiration?
You have said that right after the recordings of POSSESSED BY FIRE, you left the band. So I take it as you didn?t manage to any tours with them at all?
No, the original line-up played only three live shows and one rehearsal room show a?la Slayer?s LIVE UNDEAD. I think you will hear that show very soon?
What are you thoughts about Exumer?s 2nd album RISING FROM THE SEA? It seemed like Exumer took a bit more ?slayer-esque? approach on that album. Just out of my own curiosity, did your departure from the band anything to do with it at all?
I like some of the songs of that album but the production and the song writing to the most part were rushed. A clear throwback for the record. I wanted to go more into the Slayer like riffing after HELL AWAITS was released. Ray and Bernie and myself were heavily into Exodus when we wrote the first Exumer record. A journalist friend brought us an advance tape of REIGN IN BLOOD when we were recording POSSESSED BY FIRE. From the moment that we heard the new unreleased Slayer record, we knew that the next Exumer record would be a Slayer -oriented album. We just didn?t know how much at the time and I think it would have been very interesting to write the new material with my vocal style? perhaps not so much like Slayer?
Did you leave Exumer on good terms with other members of the band, leaving them an expression that you wanted to evolve into a bit different areas musically at that time?
I left because I thought I was the star of the band and my ego was huge. I was on good terms with everybody shortly after I had left the band. I was happy with my decision and moved on to other projects, not knowing that a lot of people were really disappointed with my departure.
That album in question suffered from a rather thin and light production. Kinda sad, as it was a great follow-up album content-wise after a very successful debut album of the band. Even if you weren?t in the band any longer, do you think the band made a mistake by changing both recording studio and producer for that album (recorded at Zuckerfabrik Studio, produced by Tommy Zielgler) because Harris Johns did a really splendid job with Exumer?s debut album production-wise, kind of knowing to turn exactly the right buttons behind the mixing table?
No doubt, Harris Johns was the right man for the first record and he would have been the right choice for the second album. The band wanted to follow up with a new album as soon as possible, kind of like Venom did with BLACK METAL after WELCOME TO HELL. The problem was that the songs were not ready and the Musiclab studio in Berlin was not available on a short notice.
After you left Exumer, you formed a Hardcore ?tinged Metal act called Phobic Instinct, recorded one album (A SECOND OF THOUGHT) with this band in ?89 which wasn?t ever released for some reason or the other? What actually happened with it; why wasn?t it released at all? Due to financial problems of the label, maybe? Would you even say that type of stuff was a bit closer to your heart at that time than playing Thrash Metal?
Man, the record company at the time (No Remorse Rec.) sent us to Berlin for two weeks and we recorded a solid Hardcore/Metal album. The material was exactly what I liked and people who heard the record totally flipped out. We played shows and people loved it. We even played with Exumer on one occasion and freaking thrashed the fuck out. It was a cool band with two Americans on guitar/bass, myself and one German guy on drums. I still have a tape of the record and there is some talk about a possible release, so stay put.
What can you tell Of Rytes your 2nd band after Exumer, besides the fact Of Rytes played Thrash Metal with probably a few Punk ?elements here and there thrown in in a good measure. You did one 9-track album titled WITHOUT with this band for a small German label Semantic Records in 1991, but I guess that?s basically it then as it seemed that Of Rytes was only known amongst a minor amount of people. Did you also handle the vocal duties in Of Rytes and who were the other guys playing in it?
Yes, I sang on the Of Rytes album. The Phobic Instinct drummer and I joined a bassist, who later on went to Humungous Fungus with me, and a guitarist. The record was quite technical and kind of hard to get into. I like it better now that back when we recorded it. Don?t get me wrong though, I only play music that I want to do and I give 100% in every project.
Was Of Ryes an active band in the gig front, too?
Oh yeah. We played opening for the Cro-Mags, Poisen Idea, the Hard Ons and many other bands.
Then you also had this band called Humongous Fungus that was basically Metal, but churned out with Rap type of vocals. Besides you, it contained both Ray and Bernie from Exumer plus 3 other guys. You have told that you found ?80s hip hop music relatively exciting and interesting to you in the late ?80s, but then lost the interest for it as it somehow sort of ?lost its edge?. What did you mean by that? Did it become a bit too mainstream in the late ?80s in your opinion, kind of becoming a big fashion thing amongst people in the music scene, so it wasn?t fun to do it any more as so many similar type of bands started copycatting each other and nothing new was happening in that specific scene any longer?
The main downfall and decline of hip hop for me was in 1998. I think that the music before 1998 was able to reinvent itself every time it was in a rut. I liked independent hip hop from 1994/5 until 98?. Then it was all over for me, after 10 years from 1987?/88?-1998. It was also in 1998 when Humungous Fungus came to an end.
So basically all the things you said in your previous answer, were the main reasons for that what killed your motivation and inspiration to continue in Humongous Fungus, correct? Besides that I got to believe that your own, true inner-self was telling you to concentrate on those things which you were basically very good at: To become a true metalhead again and start thrashing like a maniac again, he-he!! 😉
Things come full circle, that?s what I believe. Therefore I had my journey and I came around full circle, THRASH FUCKING METAL!!!
You also played a one-time reunion show with Exumer at Wacken Open Air festival in 2001 that was indeed damn well received by hundreds of metalheads. I know you have already commented that particular show for many, but however let?s get back to it one more time, so would you tell to the readers of Metal-Rules.com, what kind of experience it was for you personally to play in front of so many metalheads at that time after so many years, fronting Exumer?
It was awesome, a ?thank you? for all Exumer -heads from the day. It was something like coming home for me. Ray and Bernie play in a rock band in Germany called September these days. They love Metal from the ?80s, but they don?t care about Metal today, so it was different for them. I intend to stay in Metal until I stop playing music period. I again want to thank everyone who made it possible for us to play in Wacken.
Would you still like to do it with the original line-up of Exumer, possibly even at some other festival like at Tuska Open Air Metal festival here in Helsinki, Finland (heh!)?
No, not really, but I would come and play with Sun Descends!
One question about the German High Vaultage Records next, tho. Namely I happen to know that High Vaultage Records re-issued and put out both Exumer?s two albums POSSESSED BY FIRE and RISING FROM THE SEA a couple of years ago with well-made liner notes, extra photos, etc. ? and having even 3 extra songs in each of them as a bonus. POSSESSED BY FIRE had your 3-song MORTAL IN BLACK demo from ?85 as a cool bonus, but from what period were those other 3 bonus tracks on the RISING FROM THE SEA re-issue CD then? As I don?t have any of these re-issue CDs (yet), I?m kinda curious fuck to know what I?m gonna get when I will possibly order one, so please enlighten me?
I?m sorry to hear that you couldn?t pick up any of the re-issues, but Oliver (label owner) is very complacent and slow. The CDs look great and are products of love for detail. The bonus songs on RISING are from an era when the band was without a deal and their last singer: John Cadden. John is a very good friend of mine, hailing from Birmingham in Britain. Those songs were intended to secure a new deal but that never happened.
LIFE IN NEW YORK? THE RAISE OF SUN DESCENDS
Sun Descends was founded in New York around in 2000 with a bit different line-up you have now in 2004. Without going too much into any line-up hassles and such, would you tell from your own point of view how this recent Sun Descends line-up differs from the one you had in the beginning; what are the main differences between the past ? and present line-ups as far the chemistry, musical backgrounds of each member of both line-ups, etc. are concerned?
The line-up from the first EP was less technically inclined than the line-ups that followed but the players were very dedicated. The chemistry was good back then because it was a new band with the energy to do some damage. The line-up in the middle had better musicians but the timing of getting together and play was not there. Finally there is the chemistry between me, Sam and Jillian. This is by far the most stable, most versatile line-up of SD. Don?t get me wrong, we have our share of problems especially around the subject of finding and maintaining a good drummer. However, it seems that the three of us seem to flow very well as human beings and musicians. I left Rob out of the mix because he is no longer with us. He had to move back Upstate New York because there was an emergency in his family and he had to be there for them. We will work with session drummers on the new material until we have a steady drummer. To all you drummers out there: Drop me note if you think you can play for SD!
When you moved to New York in late ?98, was your main intention to form your own band back then ? or look for some already existing band to connect your forces with?
I had no intention in being in a band. I was so disillusioned from my experience in Humungous Fungus and Sony Music that I didn?t want to play anymore. Sony had shelved the last HF record and a year and half worth the work. Fuck them, bullshit corporate assholes. I will never sign to major label in my life again, not that I am expecting to anyway. It took me year to stay successfully out of music and then I was right back in it. Sounds like a line from the Godfather movies, doesn?t it? (ha-ha… it surely does, -Luxi comments-)
How did you come up with the name Sun Descends anyway? Were you somehow influenced by DARKNESS DESCENDS by this certain you-know-what-band at that time or did you simply find that name relatively spontaneously without thinking too much?
There weren?t any influences from other bands or album titles when it was time to find a name for the band. It was a mix of a spontaneous idea and my ideas about my personal esoteric beliefs – making reference to where the sun rises and sets. The solar and lunar cycles represent a large part of my esoteric beliefs, which directly links to my martial arts training.
Your first recording with the band was a mini-CD titled TIDE IN THE AFFAIRS OF MEN which was also released on High Vaultage in 2001 as a limited edition to 1000 copies only. There was some talk between you and the label that it would have been released as a 10? vinyl as well, as the original plan was, but I guess that never happened?
I have a 10? vinyl copy, former SD guitarist John Monsees has one and Oliver from High Vaultage has one. To my knowledge the label never printed more and therefore there aren?t any more copies out there. We just signed a combined deal with Marquee Records and Khaosmaster Productions for South America and maybe there will be some SD vinyl after all.
TIDE? was received pretty damn well by media nearly all over the globe. Do you think that package gained actually as much recognition and attention as it deserved or would you have hoped it had made a bit bigger and stronger impact on people in general?
Well, I think the reactions were very positive if you consider that the recording on TIDE? wasn?t intended to be formally released at all. I also am happy that KANUN-LAW made more of an impact overall in the Metal community because it?s a stronger output. So, I am very happy in general that both EPs received the amount of attention they did.
Your second mini-CD, carrying the title KANUN-LAW, was released last year, and even if you had still stayed relatively loyal to this old school Thrash Metal style, your songs had also absorbed some certain modern elements into wholeness, but I think that?s just a part of the natural musical progression of the band as you don?t want to stick to one certain thing like forever, but evolve and experiment musically over some certain borders a little bit, too. Am I right?
I think we stuck to our Thrash Metal mission very closely on KANUN-LAW. Sam, our guitarist who writes most of the music, has a wide area of influences and some of those will come out in his song writing. However, we discuss what should end up as a SD song and what we will dismiss in the process. I want to hear a certain sound as a whole and Sam knows that so he writes accordingly!
You have said, in many different contexts that KANUN-LAW is conceptually based on your Turkish heritage. I?m sure some people are excited to hear more about it a bit more detailed way, so would you mind explaining what this specific concept for KANUN-LAW is all about?
The title track is about the battle for Constantinople in 1453, what later became Istanbul. I was born in Istanbul and I have a strong connection to my native country. I wanted to write something that is close to my heart, but I can really only write lyrics in English so I decided to write about an event that has to do with Turkish and Western history. I really got in touch with my Turkish identity after my move to New York. I found it easy to reach out to my roots in a City where everyone comes from a different place. There are about four million Turks who live in Germany and maybe 250,000 in the U.S. but every year there is a Turkish parade in New York. I haven?t heard about an annual parade for anyone in Germany. Don?t get me wrong though, this is not meant as critique for Germany. I grew up there and I have many friends there. They just have a different way of looking at things over there. I wanted to title a record with a Turkish name and the word ?kanun? means ?law? in Turkish.
You have already managed to play some gigs with Sun Descends, so how does it feel to be onstage again and perform in front of crazy metalheads? I guess it?s also a damn good way to release some steam, tension and frustration out of yourself, isn?t it, heh!
We only played one show so far, but we will play many more in the future. The reaction from the crowed that night was fantastic. They also loved the two Exumer songs we played and it gave us a lot of energy for future shows all together. I study and teach martial arts in NYC and that is my main way to stay emotionally balanced and let off steam in a positive way.
Do you still play some old Exumer songs occasionally with Sun Descends? Have you ever thought about it as I bet people who really know where you come from, may have requested that from you in your gigs, haven?t they?
Like I said we play two songs from POSSESSED BY FIRE. The songs are ?Fallen Saint? and ?Possessed by Fire?. I would like to come to Finland and play them for you guys someday.
Obviously you have already written a bunch of new material since KANUN-LAW came out, so can you tell something about this new stuff you have written? Is there going to be any drastic changes music-wise as far as your new stuff is concerned? Any surprises?
Yeah man, the new songs are more versatile, heavy, faster and powerful than the other SD material. Doesn?t this sound like an answer you hear all the time? But seriously, the new material sounds really heavy and I?m sure all the people who bought KANUN-LAW will like the full-length SD album. THRASH METAL INFERNO!!!!
How?s the club scene in New York anyway? Are there any clubs that aren?t afraid of taking Metal bands to play in these places? What are some of the coolest clubs there that have become known amongst a more Metal-orientated people?
We have shows here, but the scene here is quite different than in Europe. The clubs where you can catch Metal shows are not only putting on Metal shows anymore. Clubs like L ?armors in Brooklyn where you could catch Metal shows all the time in the ?80s are not around anymore. L? armors is still there, but it?s not as inclusive to underground Metal. America is wide open to trendy Metal stuff and that includes clubs in New York. Thrash or other less visible forms of Metal have a hard time to find venues that have underground shows. Listen, I don?t want to cry about the old times, but people and venues have drastically changed. Venues will put up shows as long they make a decent profit and won?t have experiments with less known bands. Where are the coolest clubs? I don?t know because it changes so much?
What do you think about the fact that there has been a huge boom in this very millennium for bringing many once disbanded Speed/Thrash Metal acts back to life again that existed in the ?80s? Exodus, Heathen, Death Angel, Assassin, Nasty Savage, Dark Angel, etc. ? they have all come back and making some great noise again. As far as I see this, it seems like Thrash Metal was never killed by itself or any other specific genres of Metal in the first place at all even if many proclaimed ?Thrash is dead? in public in late ?80s/beginning of the ?90s.
The bands from the ?80s returned, but I think they have varying success in revamping the spirit from the ?80s. I stayed away from re-uniting Exumer because I knew that people would expect one thing and that we would deliver another. The music that we?d come up with isn?t necessarily what people would expect. We had offers from big Metal labels to put out a new Exumer record after the Wacken show, but we declined. I guess Thrash never was dead, but less visible, and it became a little pretentious in the end. However, I wish all the bands from the ?80s who are back today all the success in the world, but make no mistake, it?s all different today! It?s much harder to live up to the fame and glory from the 80s and the older fans have moved on or forgotten.
Would you personally like to see a reunion of Exumer?
NO! Exumer must and will rest in pieces?
The last 3-4 years have been kinda tough and sad time for many metalheads due to unfortunate yet even rather unexpected deaths of Chuck Schuldiner, Paul Baloff and Quorthon. I was just wondering what these aforementioned 3 fine and extremely talented Metal legends have meant to you exactly and what kind of impact they have made on you in your life?
All of these musicians were part of my life?s soundtrack in the best years of my life. They all played in excellent and diverse bands. They filled my life with emotion and artistic expression, inspiring me to become a musician myself. I met Paul from Exodus 3 times on the Venom tour in 1985/86. Then I met him on their reunion tour in 1997. He was the best, as a vocalist and a person. Paul was the realest Metal guy I have met in my Metal career and I have met many metal artists. “Evil” Chuck from Death and Quorthon from Bathory represented the extreme end of Metal once. They influenced so many movements within Metal that everyone should pay tribute to them. To make it short, sad times for extreme Metal without those guys, you will be missed!!!
So what does Sun Descends have in store for 2005? I suppose this year will also mean a debut full-length album from you guys at least, correct?
The full-length should come out this year and we?ll try to come to Europe in 2005/6. Stay tuned to www.sundescends.com!!!
Well, I guess that?s it for now Mem. I think I pretty much covered everything from Exumer to Sun Descends, but if there?s still something you?d like to add to the content of this interview, then feel free to use this opportunity now. I wanna THANK YOU from the very bottom of my heart Mem for this interesting conversation with you and wish you best of the best with Sun Descends for the future! THRASH ON?!! ,,/
Thank you Luxi and everyone for supporting me and Sun Descends! True metalheads like yourself and your readers will keep this music alive. You are the most important reason for all of the Metal community to continue putting out records?THRASHNYC!!!
Luxi and Mem at the backstage of Wacken 2001
The official SUN DESCENDS homepage: