INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY MARKO SYRJALA
One of the most significant news items from the metal music world has been Mike Howe’s return to the ranks of Metal Church. Howe originally joined the band in 1989, replacing the original vocalist David Wayne. The revised lineup released albums BLESSING THE DISGUISE (1989) and THE HUMAN FACTOR (1991) which are still the band’s most successful albums to date. HANGING IN THE BALANCE followed in 1993, but it was less successful than its predecessors. New music trends, politics, and wrong decisions led to internal conflicts and as a result, the band broke up in 1995. Metal Church was re-established in 1998. The line-up was the band’s original members, the same line-up which recorded Metal Church’s first two albums in mid ’80s. The band released the album MASTERPEACE In 1999. However, the line-up did not last for a long time together. With the exception of Kurdt Vanderhoof, the line-up fell apart one after another. Vocalist Ronny Munroe replaced David Wayne in 2001. The band released four albums with Munroe before he unexpectedly left the band in fall of 2014. The future of the band was once again at stake. In April 2015 the band announced that Mike Howe had returned after more than a 20-year hiatus. The band’s eleventh album XI saw the light of day in March 2016. In August, the band arrived in Finland and performed in Porispere festival. There, I got a chance to sit down with Mr. Howe. We discussed about his return, the past and the future… Read on!
MIKE HOWE IS BACK
First of all, welcome to Porispere Festival!
Mike Howe: Thank you. Being here is great.
Metal Church in Finland with Mike Howe on vocals! This is certainly something that many did not expect would ever happen, but life is full of surprises. Mike Howe is back!
Mike Howe: Thank you! I am back. It’s good to be back, yeah.
Let’s start with an easy and obvious question. Who first initiated contact regarding this reunion and when did this happen?
Mike Howe: It was in late 2014. Almost two years ago. Kurdt contacted me; we always had each other’s phone numbers over the years. But we didn’t really have a lot of contacts; it was just once in a while over the years. But he still had my phone number, and so he contacted me, I’m not sure right around the time that happened. He expressed to me exactly what you just said about before; he doesn’t have it in him to carry on Metal Church and look for a fourth singer. So it started a dialogue between him and me that went on for months. I didn’t want to do it at first. We talked about how things have changed in the music business, and how the things that drove me away from the music business didn’t exist anymore. Then with the advent of technology how it wouldn’t take as much time away from my own life, to be able to write songs and do that whole recording process. So we went through this process of me learning, how more modern technology would help us save us time and energy trying to get together. Even far apart from each other.
What were the most specific things that made you consider carefully before you made the final decision to return?
Mike Howe: Just the music business in general, yeah. But we had those conversations how it’s not like that anymore, and so he basically educated me on the new form of Metal Church’s record company involved, Rat Pak Records, and what their part was in it. So all these enticed me and I said, but the main thing for me is new material. Can we write songs again that will be stand up to Metal Church name? We left it there and we took baby steps. Like say; we’re starting over as babies, and we’re going to work our way up and make sure that we do it the way we want to do it. It has to be enjoyable and fun doing it. I said okay, I’m open-minded Kurdt. Let’s see what kind of songs you can write. So he wrote some songs and sent them to me on Dropbox. I listened to them and they were very impressive. I was like very impressed with his ability to still write amazing riffs and in having Mike Howe singing over them in mind. He wrote the songs that he knew would fit my voice and the style of my singing. So we kind of went back in a time machine to the ’90s. We’re going to pick up our songwriting style from the HANGING IN THE BALANCE record and move forward from there. Like we could have back then, if it weren’t for the music business ruining it for us. That was our goal. We had some issues that we wanted to work through and we had some unfinished business, let’s say. HANGING IN THE BALANCE was a great record, but all that surrounded it kind of ruined it for us.
I still remember that album cover which was just horrible. “Laughs”
Mike Howe: The cover art, the management, the record company. All those things. They got in our way and making music not enjoyable anymore.
In a way, it is interesting that when you decided to quit with music, the business wasn’t that good anymore and now it’s actually even worse than what it was back then. The numbers are lower than ever, and those will probably never rise again, don’t you worry about it?
Mike Howe: Sure, in a way. But in other ways, it’s good, because you’re in control of your own destiny. We have a great record company that it’s very much like a promotional company. Not a record company per se. We call it our record company; it is our record company. Joe O’Brien is the president, and he’s awesome. But he works his ass off every day on the computer promoting us and getting that word out there for us. So that’s a publicity tool. He’s mostly doing for us, sell our records, and he works so hard. He and his team are amazing, and that is a huge thing for us. To know them, talk to them. I talk to them almost every day. I know how hard he’s working for us, and know that he really does deep down care about us and love our music.
Of course, there’s a huge difference to work with these smaller but much more dedicated labels instead of major labels?
Mike Howe: That’s the reason I’m here right now talking to you, it’s because of Joe and because of Kurdt in the band. Because if any of that bugged me and weren’t, I would be gone.
THE NEW LINEUP
What’s different from the old days is the fact that you’re finally sharing the stage with Kurdt.
Mike Howe: That’s right. So that’s another aspect that’s awesome. Kurdt and I have always wanted to be in a band together, so now this is the first time that we get to be an actual band. Playing on stage, in front of people together. That’s another magical part of me back in Metal Church.
The early 90’s, it was a strange time for me as a longtime fan. The band’s founder/guitarist of the band still wrote songs but did not perform with the band. “Laughs”
Mike Howe: That’s right, that’s right. Now he’s there and right next to me on stage every night, it’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t go by us that this is very special and we’re very lucky to be where we are right now and having a second chance at it. So we get to really enjoy it every night because we know it could go away. We will do all we can to keep it going and enjoy the ride, but we appreciate every day that we’re together.
How about the rest of the line-up, which is all new to you, does it make any difference?
Mike Howe: At first you go through the process of like; this is going to be totally different. But my philosophy now is at 50 years old, getting a second chance. I feel very lucky to be where I am now, and I’m open-minded. The more I open my mind and my heart to the music and trying to write and have fun and enjoy what we’re doing, the better it becomes. So I’m open to playing with new guys and see how they are and what they bring to the table for Metal Church. Once I did that, and I started playing with these guys, I realized; these guys are great players too, and they’re great people, and I’m really enjoying playing with them as well. So now this is 2016 Metal Church, and I think it’s awesome.
Are you still in any touch with “the old guys” like Duke Erickson or somebody else?
Mike Howe: Duke and I talk and John Marshall and I talk. Also, we’re very good friends. Yeah.
How did they react when they heard that you’re going back to Metal Church?
Mike Howe: They’re very excited. Actually, they’re very supportive. They’re great guys, yeah. They’re behind me all the way.
I can see that the status of Metal Church is getting bigger and better now. The new XI album sold quite well, there are a lot of great reviews up there, and you’re having great tours like the one with Megadeth. How do you feel about that?
Mike Howe: It seems to be like that. It seems like Metal Church is climbing their hill back up to whatever is up there, but we’re going for it, and we’re enjoying the ride. Just playing the best we can and having a great attitude and positive energy, and it’s very exciting.
METAL CHURCH VS. NOSTALGIA ACTS
Let’s go back to more positive things. One great thing about Metal Church is the fact that the band is not just a nostalgia band that lives in the past. Metal Church wants to go ahead and do new music and, like you just said, that is a really important thing for you to do this.
Mike Howe: Yes, because I’m not a nostalgic act and that’s what Kurdt and I talked about when I came back, and said, I will not come back just for nostalgia. I love those songs, and I love playing them every night; “Human Factor,” “Date with Poverty,” “Badlands.” All the songs are fun and great songs to play. But if we don’t write a new album and it’s not up to what we feel is good, then I’m not in. So with that mindset, we went in, pretended that we were the only two on the planet. We were doing high fives and something, and we kept it. That’s great, we love that, and we kept it. That’s how we went with the process of writing the album. We felt in the end that we could be proud of the product we did and put out, so now we can tour it. If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here.
How do you like bands that are pure nostalgia acts? There are bands like Twisted Sister who don’t have any new music for almost 30 years, but they still tour every year, year after year, playing the same old songs every night.
Mike Howe: I can completely understand that… but it wouldn’t be fun for me if I didn’t have new material. For me, that’s my driving forces. Having new material to excite me and to make me feel good about myself, and that we’ve created some art that we can be proud of today, and you play with that.
LIFE AFTER METAL CHURCH
This is a bit personal question but once you left the band in 1995, what did you actually do during the next 20 years?
Mike Howe: I have my own company, and I raised two boys. That’s basically what I did; I lived the life of raising two boys and living my life. A regular life. I really enjoyed it, it was great. I have two great boys that I’m very proud of and lucky to have in my life.
How old your sons are now?
Mike Howe: They’re going to be 14 and 19 in November, so they’re 13, 18 right now.
So it’s getting easier to deal with the band and the family things at the same time?
Mike Howe: Yes, exactly. So it affords me to do this.
What kind of company do you have, what area you’re doing?
Mike Howe: It is construction, building. Remodeling and stuff like that.
Who’s taking care of your company when you’re on tour with the band?
Mike Howe: It’s my company. So I’m behind myself. “Laughs”
At that time when you stopped following the music world, I remember that you said this in some old interview, you also stopped listening to music because you were so angry about everything that had happened. Did you really do that?
Mike Howe: That’s right, and that’s exactly why. Because I was very jaded, I was very angry and hurt by the music business itself. It made me hate music, the business. To say that it’s very big for me, because I love music and music is a part of me and a part of my soul, like you, and everyone who’s involved in it. So to be like I have to get away from it, because it’s been hurt so bad by the music business. It was really a hard thing. So it took a while, but my love of music came back. I love all whole music; I think that there is good in every style of music if you look for it. Because it’s all a basic, Rock and Roll, whatever, it’s a blues based. It’s just the fundamental elements of music that move people and soul in every kinds of music. There is commercial stuff that’s like, yeah. So that’s what I do and it’s an art form. So whatever resonates for me, makes me feel good and that’s what I look for in all kinds of music. For you it might be different and for that person over there it might be different, but that’s what’s great about it. Is we all can find what we love and makes us feel good inside.
NEW MATERIAL AND SOCIAL MEDIA
I know that it’s not been too long since XI album came out, but have you already been in talks about writing new material with the band?
Mike Howe: We have every intention of doing that, and that’s what it’s all about. If you’re not putting on new music, then it’s time to go away for me. In Metal Church… it’s always been like a two-year cycle band, but we put our album out this year in March. So our album is actually only being out for six months. But we have plans on this fall getting back to writing and try to put something out next year. We’re also looking at some dates for the spring possibly back in the States and maybe back over here. But our drummer Jeff, he’s also on the TSO. He leaves from the end of October through December. So we might take that time to start writing a new record.
I have heard that you also have plans for new Metal Church DVD/Blue Ray?
Mike Howe: Yeah, we’re working on that, and we’re working on some other things. I really can’t say much right now, but we’ve got a lot of tricks up our sleeves, and we’re very excited because we realized that you have to keep putting things out and doing things, to keep the fans excited and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’ve got some videos and things like that that we’ve shot, that we’re going to put out and it’s going to be fun. We got a lot of things we’re working on.
One thing what I have noticed is that you and the whole band are well aware of how to use social media. And that’s great because without doing that it’s almost impossible to communicate with fans nowadays.
Mike Howe: Yeah. Joe at Rat Pak is the leader in charge…He’s taking the bull by the horns and going, guys, we got to do this. And we’re like, alright, let’s do it.
Were you how familiar with social media before this?
Mike Howe: No, none. It was very exciting for me. I’m an old man; I’m an old man whose technology skills are… I’m not completely an idiot in technology because I have two boys. So they keep me on map “laughs” I had, and I still do my personal Facebook page. I got into Facebook because I wanted to keep in touch with my family in other States, far away from me. That’s what I look at Facebook; my personal page is for my family. So I have that, and I don’t accept friendship from bands on that, because it’s a personal thing. But I look at the Metal Church Facebook page all the time, and we react to those, and we talk to the fans through that.
REMEMBERING THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Our time is running out soon but let’s go briefly back to the early ’90s. Metal Church did a lot of touring with other great bands at that time. Do you have any special memories from that period which you would like to share with us?
Mike Howe: Yes, I do. I have a very specific memory and I have told this in many interviews, but I’ll say it again and again. Because it’s one of my best memories. We got to open up for Judas Priest on the Operation Rock & Roll tour in 1991, which of course Rob Halford was a hero of mine and I emulated him, and he helped me to form my vocal style. By copying him in a cover band. So I got to tour with him and meet him and he was a great guy and very kind to me. When we went through my home town of Detroit, Michigan where I grew up. We played there in an outdoor venue and my whole family got to come down and see that show. In particular my mother was a very big supporter of my singing since I fell out of her womb, she’s my biggest supporter. She knew that Rob was a big influence on me when I was younger, and she said to me, Mike, I’d like to meet Rob Halford. I said, Of course mom, you can meet Rob Halford. In the tent, after show tent, meet & greet tent. After our show, I came out. After taking a shower and I came to the meet and greet tent, and Rob Halford was there doing some media. My parents and all my family were sitting at a table in the tent, I looked over at my mom and I nodded at her. I was going to go over to Rob, I walked up to him and said, Rob? Yes? I said, my mom asked me if she could get a picture with you. Would that be okay? He said, let me tell you something Mike, your mom is just like my mom. She would already be lined over here and we take a picture together. He was like, she’s a great woman. I looked over at her as I’m talking to him and she was like sitting over there like this, like a little girl and got her hand caught in the cookie jar. It was so sweet. Now I have a picture of Rob Halford and my mom, it’s very special to me.
It would be super cool to see you on tour with Judas Priest again. In addition to Priest, whether there are other bands with whom you would like to tour with in the future?
Mike Howe: Of course, I’d love to play with Priest. I’d love to play with Metallica; I’d love to play with any band that would take us out. That would expose us to a larger audience and say, Metal Church is back. But I also love playing our own shows in clubs and all that. It’s very intimate. I love playing club shows. So anybody with a sizeable audience that we could reach out to would be great, and any shows on our own.
And tomorrow you have a show in Wacken Open Air!
Mike Howe: Yeah. I’m very excited about it.
What kind of expectations you have from that show? It’s a huge festival!
Mike Howe: I don’t have any expectations. Just say, we’re going to bring our metal to the masses and step up there and do what we do and have fun playing our music to them. It’s what we do every night. Whether there are hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands…It doesn’t really affect me differently. As many people that are there, the more, the merrier. I like it all.
THE LAST WORDS
This interview has been a lot of fun to do but unfortunately, we both need to do other things now and its time to finish this up. Is there anything else you want to say to the readers?
Mike Howe: Just that I’m very, very much appreciative of all those readers and Metal Church fans out there. It’s the old cliché, but if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to be back here doing this again. I’m very appreciative of that, and I’m grateful for where I’m at today and current nine books. It doesn’t get past us that we’re very lucky to have this second go at it again.
Thank you, Mike!
Mike Howe: Thank you very much for doing the interview.