Interview with Toby Knapp
Conducted by Robert Williams
Shred god Toby Knapp returns with his new solo album “Static Warfare” emerging like a blazing phoenix from the ashes of a challenging number of years during which time original Onward vocalist Michael Grant unexpectedly passed away halting any future musical activities under the Onward banner. After relocating in New York in hopes of taking Godless Rising to the next level, the gifted guitarist next turned his focus into creating a new solo album. Taking a look at everything happening around him in the world “Static Warfare” became the most fitting title for the new solo album as the ever present threat of nuclear war continues to dominate the headlines. “Static Warfare” assaults the listener with an all encompassing barrage of heavy six-string artillery. Toby recently took the time from his busy schedule to speak with Metal-Rules.com about “Static Warfare” as he and Shred Guy Records prepare for the album’s much anticipated release.
How are you doing today Toby?
Shred Guy Records is set to release your new solo album “Static Warfare” July 2nd and this CD is a sort of testament to your own perseverance as a guitarist and a personal victory for yourself after relocating to NY and then reforming and disbanding Onward after the sudden and tragic passing of your former vocalist Michael Grant. That would be a lot for anyone to cope with but you really stayed the course and the end result is “Static Warfare” an amazing display of wizard like heavy metal ability and prowess and really connects the dots and better ties together your involvement in the many bands and projects throughout the years. For our readers at home, walk us through everything over the last several years since your most recent album “The Campaign” up to the here and now…
2010 looked to be a great year career wise. “The Campaign” and Godless Rising’s “Trumpet of Triumph” were released close together and getting very good response. The idea was to tour with Godless Rising and promote both records throughout 2010. Things just went wrong from the start. Jeff Gruslin and I were/are Godless Rising. During the recording we went through a ridiculous amount of flake musicians. No band was materializing and the tour dates were falling apart anyway because no promoters/booking agents could guarantee anything. So there were these albums out with a buzz on them and my hands were tied. Before I knew it I was dabbling in the cover band circuit making $50 for five hours of work, so of course I began drinking my face off. I moved to New York just to make a drastic change, hopefully for the better. Music wasn’t really a priority at that point because the buzz on the albums was over. So I studied and worked and after a year decided to create a new Onward as a power trio, no original members. I was working on the music and had secured Rock It Up Records as the label. I falsely assumed Michael Grant was doing just fine and pursuing his career happily and I always believed we would eventually iron out our differences and get the original Onward back in order, time was on our side. So just as fans were noticing a new Onward was activating, Michael passed away. Pretty much upon hearing the news of his death I said “It’s over” and the guys I was working with agreed. I couldn’t risk tarnishing the way Onward would be remembered out of respect to the original members. So it’s laid to rest in his memory. I did not touch the guitar for another six months or whatever and moved back to Wyoming and began work on “Static Warfare” just to test my level of endurance and creativity. I wanted to know if I still “had it” or if my music was gone forever. Turns out there was still alot of fire flowing through these veins after all and that is the exciting part. The bonus is the label I’m on believed all along and as soon as Mike McDowell of Shredguy Records saw me dust myself off and get back to work, he immediately stepped in and completed the picture. I feel very, very fortunate. 20 years ago I released “Guitar Distortion” on Shrapnel at age 21, here I am at 41 doing the same thing for Shredguy Records. I feel I’m getting my second wind.
That is quite the musical journey and I do hear some riffs on “Static Warfare” that are reminiscent of the powerful melodic heavy metal Onward was always known for and then I also hear a nod to Voivod, maybe some Uli Jon Roth flavor and some really abrasive riffery more in line with modern black/death metal. I know there was an urgency to get this stuff out and I’ve noted that you’ve said that during the studio sessions for “Static Warfare” you would usually go with the first take. You could never know or guess that as a listener, it all sounds perfect! When did this material all take shape?
Thank you. Many of the riffs were intended for Onward….and you might notice I chose not to solo over them, a kind of way to pay respect to Michael Grant. They were riffs that came in handy from the “almost Onward” demos I did in New York. On Voivod, they’ve always represented integrity in their music and conduct. They have become so important to me, their past, present and future- the elements finally sank into my musical vocabulary. They are prog fans too, they were hugely influenced by King Crimson and so am I. The Uli Roth flavor comes from a massive Marty Friedman influence, if you study Marty, you are automatically studying Roth as well. The vibrato, bending sour notes into correct notes is one of my favorite things to do- no matter what note you land on while improvising, you can get it into the proper tonality for the song. My recording gear was failing and it was a race against time, so I decided if a solo isn’t nailed in a take or two, screw it, just leave it. Guitar solos are not a pissing contest for me. There are also some Ace Frehley things going on combined with his mentor and mine, Jimmy Page. There was no conscious effort to use black metal, because I might just be a black metal musician making an instrumental record. When I came close to joining Mayhem, I had to learn a lot of their music and it forever changed my outlook on music to an extent. I never said “Here’s the evil part” the evil sounding part is who I have become as a writer. The record is filled with built up anger and urgency….but there are breaks from that, it sounds like war, trench warfare. Lulls and then blasts.
I can absolutely understand your decision to go solo after Michael Grant tragically passed away. I think a lot of people reading this would like to hear how you and Michael originally met and ended up working together? If you could reflect on him as a friend and vocalist in your own words…
“Evermoving” was completely written and recorded and a trio was in place with no vocalist….but a few labels were backing what we rere recording, instrumentally at that point, because they knew it was just a matter of time until the right guy came along and turned it into magic. I was in Wyoming, Mike was in L.A. and we hadn’t heard of each other. He got my number from Denis Gulby of Sentinel Steel Records and just called me out of the blue one day. I heard his voice from Legend Maker’s debut and liked it. So he asked me what I wanted. I remember getting into a very enthusiastic conversation over Def Leppard’s “High and Dry”…..”Mike can you put that influence in the music vocally” and he was a smart guy. He’s like “A-ha! You want hooks and catchiness”. He demoed the entire album and I told him to remove, rearrange just a few things, then he recorded it for real and Onward was official. Not sounding like Def Leppard, but the hooks I wanted were there. He was a master of that. We met at our first gig and photo shoot, he thought I was strange….but once he got my twisted sense of humour he was right there with it, he knew how to make me laugh by taking my sense of what’s funny up a few notches and from 99-2002 we were on the same page. Something went wrong on tour in 2002 because “outsiders” began pulling us apart and the struggle for power began. Like Don Dokken and George Lynch I suppose. I have to remember just the good, because that is what is left, the music. The good thing we created. I was numb when he died because we hadn’t resolved our issues. Hindsight again, very painful….Michael walked the walk and talked the talk and took life by the balls and really lived, everything was an adventure and a joy and curiosity to him, he just seemed to love life. He would go out sight seeing while I stayed in the hotel room self-medicating. Typical band antics.
When you talk about “Outsiders” and such, who or what was contributing to the demise of the band?
I just believe Onward was a gift that we abused and therefore it was taken away from us. We went astray from our original purpose which was usurping our label mates, then going after the big guys like Slipknot and actually becoming Iron Maiden status. Many believed, even Century Media, that we had arena rock potential. Our shows were like Led Zeppelin in there intensity. It’s the truth and one day I’ll release footage. Michael’s girlfriend planted a bug in his ear to get on me to hire his buddy as a second guitarist. In the meantime my manager and myself are shouting “That’s fucking blasphemy!” In reality it wasn’t a war against Michael and I but Michael’s girlfriend and I. She passed away one year before him. Now we are going into heavy territory I cannot judge nor understand. All I can do is wish them peace.
Tell me about the tour, taking these songs on the road and in some cases probably introducing new crowds to the kind of intensity you were speaking of. What was that like? Also, when you mention the live footage what all do you have and WHEN can we expect to see it?
Together we had a gift for winning over skeptics. We would get decked out in bullet belts, leather, all black, chains and play pure traditional heavy metal. By the end of our shows it was always a crowd full of smiles and “Fuck yeahs” it was like a celebration. At first people are standing with their arms crossed with grim looks on their faces….people in Marduk shirts, Iced Earth shirts….by the end everyone was ecstatic and energized. The way you felt when you left a Slayer concert, not full of hate, but energized and just shouting “Fuck yes” in the parking lot. We were the first official signed band to open the first Progpower in the U.S. I have that concert. I also have access to our final show at the key club in L.A. supporting Blind Guardian. 1,000 people going nuts for us and a label guy came up to us after that show and said “That was a career making performance.” We were ready to make that real break through, we were recognized on the streets. That was our last performance. It will be seen eventually. It just needs to be packaged properly and more legality bullshit worked out.
I remember when “Reawaken” came out and there was a strong buzz in the underground about this new band who was heralding a return to traditional American heavy metal and with you guys the music lived up to and even surpassed the hype. It was absolutely the real deal and what a classic and timeless record that was. Tell me about some of your memories creating that masterpiece…
We were living in Las Vegas and I was able to book us in the same studio where I did “Guitar Distortion” nearly a decade earlier. Michael and I wrote that album before “Evermoving” was released. It took forever to negotiate contracts and legalities so we said “Fuck it! Let’s write some new material.” We were in the studio having a blast recording it, we knew we had something special going and the vibe was positive. Then while we were finishing up, working on our “apocalypse/endtime” song “Who Saw The Last Star Fall” 9/11 happened and recording came to a halt. We thought this is it, this is World War 3 and how fucked it is we are making a song about precisely what was going on. The band was freaked, the engineer was freaked. Had we tapped into a global consciousness premonition type thing? I know this is wrong, but I was hitting a wall with solos. Shaky hands and red light fever. Mike runs out of the studio and returns with a brown paper bag a few minutes later. The engineer and Mike were like “Have a drink and relax” then I blazed through some stuff until I hit the wall of complete drunkenness. I don’t condone that, but time was money and I needed to let go of guitar inhibitions and “bring it” so to speak. Michael and myself became huge fans of each other while recording that album. I was saying “Fuck! I can’t believe what you are doing with your harmonies” and he was going “You are a fucking database when you play”…. Happy days. Not happy days in the 9/11 statement, maybe “crazy days”.
Indeed. And it would be about four years until Metabolic Records would issue a proper release of the third and final Onward album “The Neverending Sun” which originally surfaced as an online downloadable demo shortly after the band severed ties with Century Media and themselves. What are your thoughts on the final Onward album looking back in hindsight…
Metalbolic Records was a then new label owned by a long time friend. People think it’s my label, it’s not. I had three unreleased albums and he needed releases to kickstart his label, so 2006-2007 was a great time for Metalbolic Records and I. He released my instrumental “Polarizing Lines” then Waxen’s “Fumaroth” followed by Onward’s “The Neverending Sun”. It is still just a demo, but it was packaged nicely with pics and liner notes/bonus tracks. This is when Michael and my relationship was deteriorating. It’s my favorite “Onward” recording in a way, it’s an ego battle caught on tape. His lyrics were insults to my system of beliefs and my guitar solos were angry retorts right back at him…like a fucked up Fleetwood Mac album or something. In this sense, it’s actually interesting and exciting. It was a metallic battle. Very raw and if you read the lyrics to “Triad” it was a self fulfilling prophecy for Onward. I believe Onward were very much in a supernatural realm. How incredibly hard it was to achieve what we did from an outsider’s point of view. It was actually easy, every door just opened for us and we went through accordingly. One day that door slammed shut and it was over. Century Media wasn’t our power, the four of us were the force and there was a disturbance in the “force” and things vanished as quickly as they were presented to us. Now it is a legacy. It will be seen eventually.
The last time you had tried to resurrect Onward was that when you had Dean Sternberg on vocals? Are you still working with him on music?
Dean has his hands full with Ashes of Ares and I’m staying the instrumental route for now.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to have built up Onward to the level of stature that you had and then to have watched it implode before your eyes….
Great victories and pure melancholly darkness were the sum of Onward’s experience. The year that an Onward with no Michael Grant is announced is the year he died. What in the hell? I keep making spiritual references because I was an avid student and believer in the book and belief system of “A Course In Miracles” at the time. Everything we experienced I saw through either diluted or pure vision. I was meditating daily trying to find the answer, trying to attain direct revelation from God. Was I insane or was I onto something? I don’t know man, weird shit was going on. It wasn’t Christian by any means. Maybe I was off my rocker. The song “Where Evil Follows” Michael wrote about how Hell kinda followed us around.
Diluted or pure vision…. Perception is key you could say. Did that belief system carry over into your next project Waxen who would release the “Fumaroth” album the following year in 2004?
Waxen was my personal and musical descent into Hell following Onward. It was not a Dragonlord type of bullshit thing. It was a frame of mind that was 100% black metal. It wasn’t a fun venture or product or commodity. It was make that music or die.
OK and let’s focus on that statement for a second… This album came out because it needed to come out but where does that leave Waxen? Will you ever unleash ferocious black metal hell beneath a Waxen moon again?
I think “Static Warfare” unleashes that. It’s like you mentioned, everything I’ve done has now come together and is no longer separated….Onward, Waxen, Solo (Toby Knapp), Godless Rising 2010….it is all one.
That is so true and this might sound weird but when I hear the track “The Impossibility Of Reason” on the new album “Static Warfare” I can almost hear Michael Grant singing over the top of it. Like I can imagine how well his phrasing and unique vocals would have fit perfectly into place…
Yes, if a riff came up that obviously needed vocals I did not obscure it with a solo, I let the music breathe and the listener’s imagination can take control. Something from “High and Dry” just started on the radio as I wrote that response…synchronicity…
The last half of that track has some really awesome and insane time/chord progressions. I think your description of the new material as “batshit crazy stuff” definitely applies to a track like “Plasma Spheroid” that track really demonstrates your masterful knowledge of what makes a good metal song. All of the different dynamics, hooks, level of technicality without sacrificing melody and the complexities of the various progressions just really took my head clean off my shoulders. I was blown away man…
Thank you. I was just letting it happen and when I would listen to the rough demos I was thinking “Jesus Christ, what the hell are you doing here?” It was different than anything I’ve ever heard yet still retaining the essential traditional metal elements.
I purposefully tuned down only a half step. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” can sound heavy if you use these ridiculous modern tunings, I deny anything but the six string. The music sounds different simply because I’m not deviating from the old way of doing things or following any modern sound or trend. It was important to get a DD Verni bass tone and an old Metallica sound on the rhythms….Slayer too. The ending of “X-Class Flare” is complete unmuted speed picking.
“X-Class Fare” is another one that I think fits with the classic Onward sound and probably could’ve been on “Reawaken”. There’s also a nice play on dynamics around the two minute mark of “Not If But When” where you transition from some intense, technical metal from the planet Mars to really lush and calming smooth jazz. I was like “Whoa where did that come from?” and just as quick and effortlessly you re-introduce the bite behind the bark.
Well, music smiled upon me I think because I don’t know how I did that. It was like I was taking dictation. Again, the whole theme of warfare permeated the music….peace for a moment and then back into battle.
Why was warfare a focal point? How did that theme influence the overall musical direction and songwriting of the new album?
During the recording all I was hearing about was war and threats of war and talks of nuclear annihilation. The reality of the slender threads we as humanity are clinging to really hit me. I was musically expressing the state of the world. At one point I wondered if we were heading into World War Three so I better finish up recording before I’m vaporized or dying from radiation sickness. While recording, I knew I may be recording in vein….but I didn’t care, I had to finish at least for myself. People think “That won’t happen to us” we are so stupid. It could fucking happen at any moment and we have no choice but to live in the present. We are not immune to nuclear attack. If North Korea ever nukes anybody it will start a chain reaction and suddenly we will be desensitized to nuclear weapons and attack and you know that won’t last long. Also, mistakes happen. Russia thought we were launching a full attack on them years ago and their finger was on the button. For some reason Boris decided not to strike back, gut instinct I suppose. We were there though, right at the threshold. We here didn’t have a clue of what almost happened when it was happening.
In a nuclear war, you get an air raid siren and half an hour at the very most before the world is ending….that’s “Static Warfare”. The emotions one might feel in the time between warning and impact. I sent the mp3’s to a friend in the military, he said it made him pissed off, ready to yell at troops and go into battle. Especially how the album progresses towards darkness as it’s conclusion draws near. It’s not all dark though, he said there was a lot of beauty in it.
When you consider who we have making decisions for their respective countries across the world it becomes a pretty frightening proposition. Yes, these people probably are that stupid to initiate nuclear war….
Indeed. I believe in our Military though. Some very high up people are dear to me. This record is for them too. In Vietnam soldiers blasted Led Zeppelin 2 in their tanks. “Static Warfare” might serve a purpose. However I would prefer everyone safe at home.
What was the most difficult or challenging aspect for you in creating “Static Warefare”?
The time and the recording gear. To write music you need silence, not chaos or voices or disturbance. Isolation is key. I got a job working silent overnights and they allowed me to bring my guitar to work and practice/compose on downtime, which I have plenty of. If it wasn’t for me landing that job there would be no album. My recording gear had been in storage for two years while I was in New York and an army of ants chewed on wires and there was water/temperature damage to the gear. There was just enough life left in the recording gear to finish the album, that’s why so many things were done on first takes.
Also, I love the cover art for the new album. Who designed it?
Jumali designed the album cover, he is also responsible for the previous two “The Campaign” and “Misanthropy Divine”. I love his work. The album cover fits the music perfectly.
So after releasing an amazing new solo album like “Static Warfare” what’s next on your agenda? It’s gotta be tough to find musicians locally that can keep up with your abilities and expectations but do you have any idea when metal fans could hope to hear you perform live on stage again?
I want nothing more to play live. It’s been years since a proper live performance. Locally I’m fucked, every musician here is way to cool for me. My listeners are in place, my album is in place and I’m ready to go, but it must of course fit around my work schedule. If I can somehow pull it off, I’ll find the right people and bring this album to the stage.
However I have plenty of projects regardless. This year I’ll be recording with Jeff Gruslin again in Godless Rising, working on a compilation cd called “archives of magick vol. 2” for shredguy- lots of rare and unreleased stuff, there’s always Onward footage to clean up and make available plus Pure Steel Records from Germany will be releasing Onward’s first two albums on vinyl. So if all is said and done for the year, it was a damn good year.
What is next on your agenda? Any other plans going forward in the second half of the year?
Well, the compilation I mentioned “Archives of Magick vol. 2” is going to be packed woth some cool stuff. My album “Polarizing Lines” will be included, remastered. Unreleased Waxen, Darken, some solo stuff and even a few never before heard Onward tracks from the early 2000’s. Godless Rising’s forthcoming 3 song EP I think I’ll include as well as this release will be download only format. Hopefully Jeff Gruslin and I can secure a new label to release our work as well. I’ve never had a guitar endorsement and I’ve been playing Fender Stratocasters for 25 years…. So this is the year I want to finally get on their roster of endorsees or maybe I find a good company to build the strat I want. I figure at the very least, a good free guitar is in order.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to talk metal with me Toby, it’s always an honor. Before we wrap this up do you have any last words for all of your fans reading at home?
Thanks for taking the time to check the new music out and have a chat with me about it Robert and thank you to the listeners old and new that keep me inspired, hope “Static Warfare” lives up to your expectations.