Interview with David Gehlke, author of Damn The Machine
What first inspired you to write a book about the history of Noise Records? Why not other early 80’s labels such as Megaforce or say Metal Blade?
David: Noise, along with Combat, Megaforce and Metal Blade, was one of the most influential labels of the ‘80s. Noise’s owner Karl-Ulrich Walterbach was able to unearth a tremendous array of undiscovered talent and a lot of his key signings are still around today and bigger than they were while on Noise. Aside from that, a lot of the bands who were on Noise were very vocal about their not-so-pleasant dealings with Karl and the label, most notably Celtic Frost and Helloween. That made me want to dive into the inner-workings of the label and find out what made Karl tick, as well as get his side of the story. Karl also has quite the back-story of his own; he spent a good part of the ‘70s squatting in Berlin, eventually becoming one of the first people to run a punk rock record company in Germany. If Karl didn’t get into punk, he probably doesn’t get into metal. This created the near-perfect sequence of events to build a book.
Tell us a bit of your writing routine. How long did it take from start to finish?
David: The book took two-and-a-half years to write. Karl and I spoke nearly every Sunday during that time, where I’d present him with a topic and he’d share his experiences. Karl is a tremendous storyteller with an excellent memory, so that made my job really easy. Of course, transcribing my interviews with Karl as well as the Noise bands was time-consuming, but that’s part of the gig. Because the book involved so many bands and personalities, it was not written sequentially. I think I finished some of the book’s later chapters before some of the ones on Karl’s early days and even Celtic Frost. Therefore, you could say it was like piecing together a huge puzzle. A 504-page puzzle.
Is this your first book?
David: Yes, this is my first book! I’ve been writing for various metal magazines and ‘zines over the years, so it seemed like a good time to put a book together. I picked a difficult, somewhat controversial topic to start with, though. As clichéd as it sounds, this was a tremendous learning experience. I learned so much along the way. If I’m lucky enough to do another book, surely those lessons will be applied. I hope.
Was it difficult to secure a publishing deal?
David: In North America, yes, absolutely. I was told the book was too niche, which I agree with. That led me to create my own publishing company, Deliberation Press. Thankfully, the world of self-publishing has grown to the point where it’s easy to do as long as you’re willing to front the money and handle the coordination of the book’s inner-design and promotion yourself. I was lucky enough to land a deal for both Germany and the U.K. with Iron Pages, who have been a tremendous supporter of the book.
What was the biggest challenge in writing Damn The Machine? Conversely, what were some of the highlights for you?
David: The biggest challenge was piecing together the story of a label that in its first incarnation, was around for 24 years and had signed hundreds of bands. Since Noise had so many bands, determining a cut-off point on who to cover was essential. That led to some bands being left out who were deserving of space, like Scanner and Vendetta. Devoting entire chapters to some of Noise’s larger bands like Celtic Frost, Helloween and Kreator was easy, but trying to accommodate the behind-the-scenes business aspect of the label was difficult at times.
Perhaps the second biggest challenge was getting the bands to talk. A lot of hard feelings still exist between Noise’s legacy roster and the label, so actually convincing certain bands that this was a neutral project was a tough go at times. Luckily, I was able to get just about everyone who was needed for the book and in just about every case, the bands were candid and honest about their time with Noise.
Highlights…there were many. Just getting to know Karl-Ulrich Walterbach for starters. Karl had been out of the spotlight since selling Noise in 2001, but since reemerged as a band manager around 2010. Working with the gentleman responsible for so much of European metal was a true honor. Karl is a one-of-a-kind personality and I am grateful he allowed me to write the book on the label he created and presided over. And, let’s not leave out talking to all of the great bands, like Celtic Frost, Coroner, Gamma Ray, Grave Digger, Helloween, Kreator, Running Wild, etc.
Why do you think it has taken so long for someone to document this story?
David: That’s a good question. It may have more to do with Karl’s lack of visibility over the years than anything. He’s certainly a known quantity in the metal scene, but for whatever reason, no one had thought of telling his story, let alone Noise’s. We’re due for books on some of metal’s legendary record companies. There’s already one on Neat Records, written by John Tucker, who served as the editor for the Noise book. But, Century Media, Combat, Earache, Metal Blade, Nuclear Blast and Roadrunner all are deserving of their own book. Granted, some of those labels don’t quite have the adversarial angle Noise has, but they’d be good stories nonetheless.
Were there any Noise artists you contacted who declined to comment or participate, or alternatively, any you just could not find?
David: In the “could not find” department was members of Dark Avenger, who appeared on the Death Metal compilation. Even with the help of the Internet, I could not track any of them down. Same goes for members of S.A.D.O. and V2, two of the label’s more rock-oriented bands. Only two people outright turned me down for participation: Rod Smallwood, who, obviously is Iron Maiden’s manager, but also started to manage Helloween while they were on Noise. I was told Rod does not do any non-Iron Maiden-related press, which is understandable. The other was Tairrie B., who used to front Manhole and Tura Satana. Tairrie didn’t feel right participating in a book that included Karl-Ulrich Walterbach, which was a bummer, but again, I respect her wishes. Outside of those two, all of the key players participated. I got extremely lucky!
Was Karl Walterbach a bit skeptical to have an American write the story of a German label?
David: Of course. Plus, Karl didn’t know me from the next guy on the street when I initially approached him in 2013. Karl turned me down several times, so after putting together a proposal on how the book was to be created, he agreed. He wanted to be sure he had a proper platform to tell his side of the story and I wanted to ensure all of his bands were represented. Once we agreed on that, we got started in March 2014. But to your point, I’m 34 and American. I wasn’t around during Noise’s heyday, so some people outside of Karl were skeptical of me writing a book about a German label that had mostly German bands. I’d done quite a bit of homework on the label and its bands, so hopefully the book shows I know what I’m talking about…fingers crossed there!
Were there any big surprises or revelations that shocked you?
David: What surprised and/or shocked me the most was how the 1990 Helloween/EMI court case killed Karl’s passion for the music industry. Up until that point, he loved running the label. He loved signing bands and watching them develop. Once he got bogged down with a never-ending parade of lawyers and legalities, he started to hate everything the music industry represented. He saw himself as the little guy going after the big guys, which was the major labels of the time. He and Modern Music (Noise’s parent company) were ultimately successful in the court case, but the damage was done. It sapped Karl of his passion for running the label and that’s when Noise’s gradual descent began.
As a fan, how much of the Noise catalogue do you own?
David: [Turns around and looks at his CD collection] I have probably anywhere from 50-75 Noise releases, perhaps more. I have all of the major/key releases and have started working on tracking down some of the label’s lesser-known albums. They’re a bit hard to find and pricy, though.
What in your estimation is the rarest Noise release?
David: Some of the label’s very early releases like Ballantinez or S.A.D.O. are really tough to track down. It’s unknown how many copies Noise pressed of each release, but since they were bands that had a very limited amount of success, it’s unlikely they made it to their second pressing. Even you, Josh, asking about the cassette version of Tankard’s Alien EP makes it pretty rare. Not even their manager, Buffo, knows if it exists!
How long did it take to complete the Noise discography?
David: Months. I was provided a print-out of the last documented Noise Records discography from around 2000. I mean, it was literally the exact print-out the label used for keeping track of their releases. So I took that and typed it up, but there were tons of gaps. My German publisher Matthias Mader of Iron Pages requested I fill in the blanks, so that took quite a bit of time. Even looking at it now, there are still some gaps. Hopefully no true hardcore collector reams me out for not having the exact, final discography.
What has reception been for Damn The Machine been like?
David: So far it has been positive, although we’re still pretty early into the process. Once people have read the entire book, I’ll be curious to hear what they think. As a first-time author, there’s certainly a bit of anxiousness in getting the opinion of others. But, it’s nice to find people are interested in the book. Karl and Noise certainly left a lasting impression.
Do you have any plans to write another Metal released book? If yes, can we have a hint to the topic?
David: Absolutely. It will be about a band; I don’t know if I could handle doing a book about another record company ha-ha. Some hints: It will either be a Swedish or German band 😉