INTERVIEW WITH NIGE ROCKETT OF ONSLAUGHT
Interview and live pictures by Arto Lehtinen
The British thrash metallers Onslaught’s most recent album simply titled VI proves thrash metal lives and well. The legendary British thrashers have returned and have shown on the last three albums that the still create murderous and brutal thrash metal without loosing an inch. The band’s long time guitarist and founder Nige Rockett sat down with Metal-Rules.com to talk about the VI album and the process of the writing and going back in time to the early days of Onslaught.
CREATING CLASSIC THRASH HYMNS
How do you actually start writing a riff for new songs – do you have ideas in mind or do you put them just down on recordings?
I always start with the song title. Every song we get I start with the song title because it just paints a picture. Of the kind of direction you want to go. As if you listen and if you look at the titles on the new album for example you can tell “Chaos is King” is going to be fast and aggressive, whereas “Children of the Sand” maybe sounds a little darker. So I always work from the song title and go for the – if I’ve got a vocal ideal for the chorus we will work on the chorus first and then on the main riff. But always the title and then the riff.
Do you think it’s a little bit challenging for you to write new songs because you have the legacy from the past and everybody remembers the first two albums that you have to top them?
For me we’ve topped those two albums with the last three personally. I think KILLING PEACE and SOUNDS OF VIOLENCE and this one. For me anyway. I know a lot of fans still say THE FORCE is the ultimate Onslaught. I think I may chance this time around. The album has only been out five or six weeks so far. The reviews even the reviews for the album are saying this is Onslaught’s best ever album. They’ve eclipsed THE FORCE and POWER FROM HELL etc. So hopefully as the album goes along and people get used to it and then they’ll see maybe this is our best album. I certainly think so.
It always takes time until an album becomes a classic – when THE FORCE came out, it definitely took time until now as it’s now a classic.
Yeah. I mean the way I’m looking at it at the moment is because it’s kind of 30 years anniversary tour as well. We’re playing songs from every album. So you can see the responses to each kind of song. The response to the new tracks has been amazing. The stuff from Killing Peace and Sounds of Violence is equally as good as the stuff from POWER FROM HELL and THE FORCE. That kind of tells you something that we’ve maybe got a set right and then these albums are just as strong as those first few.
I guess that most of the older bands like Onslaught with classic songs from the past, have to play them every time as you can’t avoid playing them otherwise people are disappointed. For example, Slayer always have to play certain songs from the past.
Yeah, I think you’ve got to. I don’t think we would ever stop playing tracks like “Power from Hell, Let There Be Death”, the stuff like that. They are kind of classic Onslaught songs if you’d like. As you said, people do want to hear them, but we also enjoy playing them as well. I think those two songs in particular still fit in with the new songs. They fit it with “Killing Peace. They fit it with “Born for War” and they fit in with “Chaos is King”. They’re obviously different eras and they’re kind of different styles a little bit, but they still fit in the set as a complete thing. We’ve tried some other songs and they didn’t sometimes fit in a set. They feel a little awkward when you come to play them. But those songs particularly maybe “Fight With The Beast”. We’re still playing “Flames of Anti-Christ”, Fight with the Beast, Metal Forces, Let There Be Death” off that album. “Thermonuclear, Power from Hell and Angels of Death” from the first album. So still including a lot of old stuff and it does really fit well into the set.
Which comes first? Lyrics or music?
Music. All the time. Unless I got a great vocal line for a chorus or something. But generally music always first for me.
Back in the day, you were really more into the anti-christian theme and religious things. You still are into the anti-Christian themes, even though you have inspiration from the modern day life?
I just approach it in a different way now. If you listen to the first two albums it was kind of fictional, mythological style. The dungeons and dragons type thing. But now with what’s going on in the world and the way things are which is generally caused by religion and gives a more reality based subject matter. About the Middle East situation and what have you.
I guess “Children Of The Sand” is based on what happens in the Middle East?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean we’ve got some kind of friends out there. They’re in a battalion of troops in Afghanistan and they’ve actually named their rocket launchers after Onslaught. They’ve got their – they got our logo outside one of their camps. So they’ve sent us over some writings that they’ve done just some thoughts and letting us know what they situations really like. Kind of things that we don’t hear. They said we’re quite welcome to use our words for inspiration for lyrics or ideas or whatever. So that’s what I did on two of the songs on the new album. So it’s quite — what they sent over was really quite heavy. It was really heavy shit. So it was something I felt really put a lot of effort in to get it absolutely perfectly right with the lyrics on that track in particular. Hence why we added string sections in and female vocals. Just to try and give it a really authentic Middle Eastern feel.
I remember having seen the soldiers with Onslaught shirts and tanks behind their back.
Yeah, that was their rocket launchers.
Is the war theme one of the inspiration topics for you to write about?
Yeah, we’ve written about war I guess in different kind of styles since the beginning. Even when we were a hard core punk band. We were writing a lot of war kind of based lyrics and we’d play aggressive music. It’s no good singing about flowers and sunshine I guess. (laughs). So I mean war is probably the most violent thing you can get. I’ve had a fascination with war ever since I was a little kid anyway. Military people in my family. My grandfather was a Sergeant in the army. We had other family members fighting abroad and that stuff. So obviously I get a lot of influence from there and I was given a lot of books as a kid to read and it became fascinating for me from probably like six or seven-year-old when I started to read sort of books properly.
Do you think that the aggression and brutality are the priority things when you write the new music? As you are a thrash band with death metal influences, you can’t go slower and slower or you are wimped out (laughs)?
Yeah (laughs), the thing that Andy said, when we started writing this album, was that we wanted to be more aggressive and more brutal than Sounds of Violence. But at the same time, we’re a thrash metal band what I consider the key things about thrash metal is strong guitar riffs, memorable ones and strong vocal hooks. So we need to keep that kind of element in there because I think that was what old-school thrash was about. On the hooks, great guitar riffs, lots of them and great vocal lines. Back in the beginning stage it was a kind of – as much aggression but keeping the catchiness put in the music as well. Which is kind of tough. Because it’s very easy to go and make some aggressive music that doesn’t really go anywhere or remake memorable. So it had to stay clear and very catchy at the same time.
Well sometimes it is a problem, in general, that songs are not catchy and you are not able to remember afterwards that you have listened. Do you think that writing songs is challenging as well when you have to make the riff that is also catchy?
Yeah. We never keep anything. We never write kind of 14 or 15 songs and tunes – ten or whatever. We never do that because if it’s not good enough we throw it away. So yeah we work ages and ages and tweak riffs just to make sure that they’ve got all the hooks in. And honestly the same thing with the vocals. For me every chorus had got to be strong. It’s got a lot of strong vocal lines in there that people are going to remember or want to sing along to when we play live and that’s a key thing I like to incorporate in my song writing all the time.
TRADEMARKS OF ONSLAUGHT ?
The album VI was recorded in Sweden. You have recorded albums at different places and producers like Andy Sneap and Jacob Hansen etc. Do you think it’s a benefit for you to record in different places to find a new sound and find a new way to work with another producer?
Yeah, I think so. Obviously when we came back we made KILLING PEACE with Andy Sneap and it was a good sounding album. Then we went with Jacob Hansen in Denmark and again I think we stepped up the aggression of the sound and we had a bigger sound, harder sound. We were due to record with Jacob again on this album, but a situation arrived where Jacob had a massive job come in and he had to move our session which was really not god for us because it would have delayed the album I think by three months and it would have put the album back to maybe November, December. Which this tour was already booked and there was no way we could cancel the tour and it would be pointless going out on tour without a new album released. We had to say sorry, we can’t wait for you. We’ll go elsewhere. So the label sent a few names over and Thomas Plec Johansson was one of the names that came forward. We listened to his work online and it was absolutely incredible. He’d done a lot of bands, but every band sounded completely different to the last one. You got a lot of guys and their mixes sound the same. A lot of bands tend to sound the same. When they work with Plec, everything was like – every band had a complete individual sound which was fantastic. So I obviously listened to the bands closely and what they bands wanted rather than just doing it his own way say every time. So I think another thing is we try to make every album sound different. I don’t like bands who make three albums, all sound the same. It’s just a continuation of the next one. Each one of our albums is very distinct in its own right. I think by going to work with Plec it gave us another different sound again. I told him where we kind of wanted to go with the guitar sounds and stuff. We needed a lot of clarity on the album because it’s the riffs are quite intricate in places and it’s a fast heavy stuff. So we needed it clear. We needed everything to be heard. So we went for a kind of different guitar sound. Maybe a little cleaner.
Do you consider those things trademarks of Onslaught that people are able to recognize that “this is Onslaught” ?
I think you can tell it’s Onslaught. Yeah, for sure. I don’t know what our trademarks are exactly.
Well, I mean when listening to certain bands, Kreator, Slayer, Destruction you immediately recognize them.
Yeah. I think Slayer kind of retained – especially with their last few albums they’ve sounded very similar sonically. Something I don’t necessarily want to do with Onslaught. As I said, I like every album to sound different. I think it’s more interesting for the listener and it gives our songs a different feel as well. But all the trademarks are there. They got to be, because I wrote the songs and Andy wrote the songs and Sy’s singing. So it’s going to be instantly recognizable. But a progression I would like to think from the last album. So yeah, I mean that played a big part in these. He really delivered exactly the sound we wanted on the album. Exactly what we spoke at the beginning. It came 100% or 110% how we wanted it. Which was fantastic. I was really over the moon with it.
Andy has been in the band for two albums. Do you view that you have to change your playing style, thinking of the other players because you have the different wingman on the gigs and previous albums?
No. It was great with having Andy come in to the writing with me really because it’s just a load of fresh ideas and we kind of bounce stuff off of each other. Probably most of the riffs on the last two albums is – we just mix it. He’ll play something and then I’ll say no, let’s change it a little bit here or change it a little bit there. If I play something maybe he’ll say, no maybe do this. And we do that with every riff. It just works really well and we can get so many great ideas together. So it’s just fantastic having extra input which I can – I wish the other guys were maybe in a position to help a little more too. Mike’s made a huge different on the new album coming in with his drum patterns and stuff. He’s going to be even more involved on the next album. So you know we’re sure the next album is going to be even more aggressive again. That’s the plan at the moment anyway.
Was the recording process somehow exhausting for you, because I read you went to Spain after that?
I needed a break. The thing was we were recording the album – we recorded all the guitars in our own studio and of course I had to write all the vocal parts and the lyrics as well. So for me since the beginning of 2013 it’s just been hell. I haven’t stopped. I think we recorded the guitar parts, there were about eight days. We were doing it constantly like 12 hours a day. Because it was on the computer. I got a strain in my arm and it seriously bad where it would just hurt all the time. A kind of repetitive strain injury and I was doing the same thing all the time. It’s like my arms really fucked. I needed a break after that. As soon as I got from holiday, I flew straight to Sweden to go and mix the album. We haven’t stopped again. We finished the album, we done some festivals in the summer. We went straight to Russia for two weeks. I think we were back for two weeks and then we’re back on tour again.
Speaking of the record label. You are nowadays on AFM, the German label, and when you made your — let’s say now - rebirth, you signed a deal with Candlelight. Was it a one album deal with Candlelight, then you went to AFM?
Yeah, it was a one album deal kind of with an option both ways. If we were happy and they were happy we could make another album. But AFM came into us and spoke to us after the one album was done with Candlelight and we really liked what AFM, I had to say. We’ve always wanted to be with a German label. Because I think Germany’s kind of central to the European market and so there were a lot of things running out of Germany and that’s not the way with the UK. The UK is kind of isolated. When AFM came in with the offer it was like yeah we will – we want to go with you guys. They have a great track record. They have some really good bands with them. So yeah, we’re very happy with them but actually it’s the first time we’ve ever made two albums back to back for the same label.
THRASHING ALL AROUND THE WORLD
You’re going Brazil, Russia, and recently you did an American tour with M-pire of Evil. How many dates do you play every year?
I’ve never added it up to be honest. I reckon I probably do…
You have a good agent.
We probably do. We do well over 100 a year without a doubt for sure. At least that I guess. Because we always do two or three tours at least which are always kind of 30 days long. Then loads of festivals and then we’ll fit in maybe a week of shows here, a week of shows there and weekend shows.
Do you think playing the shows and traveling is easier than in the 80′s?
Yeah, it’s obviously a lot easier now. There’s so many airlines, especially the budget airlines which are cheap and you can fly virtually anywhere in the world quickly. We didn’t tour so much back then.
Yeah, well that was a fantastic one. That was nice. We didn’t tour near as much as we do now. We need to tour loads just because of the situation within the music industry. You need to be out there touring a lot.
After returning to the limelight in 2006, you have played everywhere and every festival in Europe; Bloodstock, Wacken, Metaldays, Swedenrock, Damnation Festival. Playing in Onslaught has brought you everywhere on the planet.
There’s still a few places we want to get to. We’re trying. We want to go to China if that’s possible. I don’t know. Australia for sure. There’s still a lot of small places. I mean we may go to Vietnam to play some shows. So yeah, I mean there’s nowhere left in Europe apart from Luxemburg maybe but I don’t know if Luxemburg has metal shows. It’s fantastic to be able to go and tour the world and play our music to people.
And all for metal.
Yeah, that’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. We meet some fantastic people. You go to some fantastic places.
Where has been the wildest, most outraging audience that you have played in front of?
Are you scared being on the stage when you are playing in South America, because they are so wild (laughs)
Oh no, no, no (laughs). I don’t get scared. For example, we played in Chile two years ago. I think there was about 1,500 people there. We’d only got one song into the set and all of a sudden this mass of people, the whole crowd just went crazy. Like what’s going on? A load of people come rushing in. All these pits were just kicking off. It was amazing. We finished the show. It was so hot inside, it was about 100 degrees inside the venue. It was crazy. So we said we’ve got to get out. We’re going to find a bar across the road. We walked out and there were these massive metal doors into the venue. They were all smashed. There was police everywhere. Horses, vans, armed police everything. “What happened – when you guys started playing there was about 100 fans locked out without tickets”. They just beat the door down. Is what — when these guys came rushing in.
But in general do you think that concerts and festivals are more controlled in the security wise compared to the old days?
Yeah, I think so. Yeah, definitely.
Do you miss the pure chaos and stage diving ?
Yeah. We still get it but obviously not on the scale of like. I mean when you go to Greece it’s still pretty crazy. As I said, South America. But in kind of mainland Europe and UK in particular it’s nothing like it used to be. You know, all these stupid health and safety rules and this and that. It’s kind of took the the violence out of some of the shows if you like.
METAL GENRES AND CULT STATUS
Yeah. I don’t know. I’ve still not been able to find any evidence. Sy recons it was us who used the term first. But I can’t find any evidence ..
For death metal.
Yeah, for the term death metal because we had it on the back of Power from Hell album written on – I think it was the inner sleeve or the rear sleeve. I don’t know. Maybe you can remember. I knew it said somewhere death metal. We had the death side, the metal side.
But have you been some kind of surprised to see how huge the death metal thing has become?
Oh yeah, it’s completely.. The song was about swords and ancient warriors I guess. But it was the same with Venom I guess, with the black metal thing.I mean look at black metal now compared — I mean it was just a song and then the term obviously came into a genre of metal. Now you look at the black metal difference from then to Venom. The Corpse paints and what have you obviously. Completely a million miles away now.
How did the punk heads became metal head? What changed your mind actually? Because I know you like Discharged and the Finnish band Terveet Kadet. I guess when you’re a punk guy to the bone?
But becoming a metal head is completely different thing like this. I always liked metal anyway. I like Black Sabbath. Obviously Discharge is my favorite band. They always had a really kind of – apart from the first few singles, as they progressed in their career they became – especially on the HEAR NOTHING SEE NOTHING …It was like it had a real metal edge to it I think personally. I was always a huge Motorhead fan when I was a punk as well and a huge fan of the Sex Pistols from when I was a little kid. Now for me the guitar sound is a really kind of metaly sound on their albums. So I’ll always have that kind of influence. When we formed the band we basically couldn’t play. So all I did was spend my term learning and learning and learning to play as quickly as I could. We formed a band. We couldn’t play very well. We wrote some basic punk songs. As we learned to play, I learned to play solos and that stuff. Things just grew from there really. We slowly kind of transformed I guess with the Power from Hell album. It was a real kind of – I think it’s more metal than punk basically. It’s got a lot of punk about it. Things just kept growing from there I guess. Just kind of a natural progression.
Did you have any clue in England what’s going on in Central Europe or North America at the same time – did you have the contact to the underground tape trading ?
Yeah, I was always. I was doing lots of tape trading with Brazil and stuff. Shane from Napalm Death and guys like that. Bill Steer and stuff. We used to do a lot of tape trades and stuff. So obviously picking up stuff from there. Never really knew what was going on in Europe so much. Because where we came from there was a massive hard core punk scene, especially in Bristol. That’s kind of where we got started. A friend of mine was promoting lots of shows. He was bringing in American bands and all the big UK bands and he was putting us on at every show. So that’s kind of where we came from.
I wasn’t really aware of that, not really. Until we’d released POWER FROM HELL and we started being in Metal Forces magazine and stuff. Then you’d see the other and the German bands and what was going on. We’re obviously aware of the American bands more so because they were always in starting to get into the magazines and a lot of the tapes were coming through from there. We’d get a lot of stuff from South America as well, but it was really, really, really basic.
I was wondering that what British band, okay, except Sabbat and Onslaught, sounded so — how am I supposed to say — so soft like Acid Rain, Re-animator. Okay, they were skilled, they have good songs but somehow they are a little bit too humorous. Somehow they didn’t click on me.
Yeah, I mean I was speaking to H from Acid Rain the other day. He came to see us in London. I actually think they’re talking about maybe doing some shows again. But I don’t know. But I think they’re — I don’t know, they – what they cover. They’ve done a few cover versions kind of fun. They were kind of a — I think they were taking more of an Anthrax route with the cartoony, comedy angle. The same for Xentrix with Ghost Buster’s cover and I don’t know. I always preferred the thrash to be serious, aggressive and that’s just my opinion really. But I think if you look at the bands that actually made it to any level of success it was the more serious bands..
Then death metal came and you were more slowed down coming more a little bit softer on IN SEARCH OF SANITY album.
Yeah. Yeah, that wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t meant to be that way. The album was obviously meant to be a lot heavier and it wasn’t more aggressive. Things didn’t pan out with the label and things got changed. I think that kind of stripped more aggression out of the band with having Steve in the band. With an American producer it became very slick and more kind of traditional speed metal rather than a hard core thrash album. That’s why we’ve re-recorded the tracks from the albums “Shellshock” with Sy as a bonus track. We’re really pleased with how this turned out. So much so we’re going to — we’re thinking of re-recording the whole IN SEARCH OF SANITY album here as a kind of bonus track — bonus album. To go with the DVD we’re planning. So could be quite interesting. The fans want to hear Sy singing that album. Obviously Sy wants to sing that album properly and we want to show the fans how the album should of sounded. So 2014 hopefully we’re going to deliver a re-recorded harder version of that album.
When Steve Grimmett left the band you got the new singer Tony O’Hara. I assume you knew the band was basically doomed to split up.
I think so really. I mean Tony was a great front man. I think we — I don’t know. The heart had been ripped out of the band. We lost the record deal and along came grunge music. It kind of was a big kick in the ass for thrash music really. Then it was really hard to recover from that.
No, I’ve done a couple of things after, a couple of projects. One of them which was with Jeff who’s in the band now. That is how I got to know Jeff. That was a really kind of cool thing. Maybe it was again the wrong time for it because grunge was still quite strong at this time and we were doing a kind of Sex Pistols meets Metallica kind of thing. It was really raw, punky metal. It was really cool. Actually had some interest from Rod Smallwood, Iron Maiden manager and he loved some of the tracks on there and it went on for a few months and then it just turned to him and said, “I got to pass on it.” It was a really fucking pisser for us though because we thought we were going to get taken on and things were going to go and that was the final disappointment for me really after the Onslaught split. Then this new project which we thought was really, really good too. That was it. Can’t take no more disappointments and just put the guitars away.
Did you ever have a thought of what’s going on with the metal scene?
Not really. Not until sort of mid-2002, 2003, something like that. I did then any live music. I would go and see maybe sort of a ’93 onwards was just kind of old school punk banks again. So I would go and see some of those bands you know. But I don’t know nothing about it. So much disappointment I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
Well, did you have any idea that as of the late ’90s there was tons and tons of bootleg albums made of the first Onslaught two albums available with the high prices? I came across strange versions of the Onslaught albums made in Japan…
Yeah. No we didn’t find out anything until basically around 2004, 2005. Even then the first two albums had already been released for two or three years we knew nothing about it. So I think Steve went and found out there were loads of outputs. We were able to find out how many records had sold and how we were staggered. How many copies were selling from the re-issued albums. It was incredible.
Did you guys have any clue about the cult status of Onslaught?
No, not really no. Not until obviously I started looking on the internet and searching and then I realized. It made things kind of relevant to see that the band was still being talked about and stuff. And that there was possibly a market for the band to do something again which is obviously something I’ve wanted to do because of how it ended last time and the thing with the In Search of Sanity album. I just felt like we finished on a bad note. I wanted to put all that right. Which is what we did and why we’re here now.
When looking back, what did you learn from the past when you made a return - Did you realize that “okay, we made mistakes with record labels – now we are not going to make mistakes that anymore” ?
Yeah, I mean even now we’re still learning. We’re still making mistakes. We’re still leaning from things that happen. Even on this tour we’re learning lessons about things you – I don’t think you ever stop learning in this business. I mean the advantage that we did have is we did have those years of experience. We did have those years of building a good following. So when we came back we weren’t a new fresh band trying to start all over. At least we were some steps up the ladder with a reputation and some kind of knowledge about the industry to start succeeding again.
I’m gonna be a little bit mean now. So you guys are nearly 50. Sy just turned 50. Where do you still find your aggression to play metal?
I don’t know. I guess I’m still an angry kind of guy. I go to football. I get angry at football. If anybody pisses me off I’ll get angry back. Maybe more. I’m an angry guy. There’s lots of things that make me angry. Music’s a good outlet for that. For the anger and energy. It’s a good release for me to get on stage and be that aggressive every night. It’s a good feeling. When it’ll stop I don’t know.
Do you think that the younger generation being at the age of 20 that are forming bands, they sound a little bit clean, sort of soft and little bit overproduced? Because back in the days the style was really more rough and brutal.
We were discussing this the other day. There’s a lot of new bands coming through but I don’t see any that are going to come through and do anything on a really big scale. A lot of it is just rehashing the old school. They’re not trying to do anything new. You know? I think the worlds a very different place nowadays to when we were growing up. Everything’s much easier. I would guess it’s easier for kids because they’ve got everything there. Sometimes they don’t even need to leave the house. Whereas we had to go out and fight for everything we had. That was the way it was. I think that reflects in the music maybe. I don’t know.
I guess I got to let you go now. Thank you for the interview.
A pleasure as always. Thank you very much.