Heart of Steel: Interviews

Celebrating 20 Years of Metal
Interview with David DeFeis,
By EvilG


Virgin Steele is celebrating their 20th anniversary. It was way back in 1981 that Trust guitarist Jack Starr, vocalist David DeFeis, bassist Joe O’Reilly, and drummer Joey Ayvazianc formed the first incarnation of Virgin Steele. In honor of this event, I recently spoke to mastermind David DeFeis about the band, their history and the future.

Well first of all I guess I'd like to start by congratulating you on twenty years of Virgin Steele! So how does it feel?

It feels great. I feel like I'm ready to go the next thousand years!



I know this is kind of a cheese ball type of thing that a lot of people do when there's an anniversary, but I guess on looking back on over twenty years of Virgin Steele is there any one event of highlight that stands above the others that you often look back upon?

I think anything that's happened in the past from '94 on, has been the most in my mind because so much has happened, with taking the music from the records and crossing that boundary and going onto the theatrical stage, doing the House of Atreus Opera and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Invictus Opera. That's some of the shining moments, and all this touring we've done in that time has been really positive, one of the most positive things. There's been some great moments prior to that but my mind has been focused really on the Marriage (of Heaven And Hell) forward to now.



So is the purpose of the release of The Book of Burning and Hymns to Victory basically to coincide with this twentieth anniversary?

Pretty much, yeah. We've done so much music in a relatively short amount of time that I think a lot of people didn't get a chance to absorb it all, or to even get it all or whatever, so it's a way for them to catch up with us before we go out and explore other wildly different terrain, or just have much more releases. So it's a way to kind of pause, check out where we've been, where we are, and where we might be going.



So I guess a lot of people have probably questioned when will the DVD be out with the documentary footage, lots of live performances and that kind of thing. :-)

Yeah, actually we're thinking about it so we're actually exploring those kind of possibilities. We're going to be doing more shows over the next month and record them, and I already have stuff already recorded from the last tour and so-on and so-fourth. So yeah, there will be some kind of DVD thing, sure, absolutely, and a live album. The live album I'm not sure if it's going to be the next release or after another studio album but there will be, probably within the next two releases, a live album.



Probably you can give me a little of the reasoning behind why you decided to re-do some of the older Virgin Steele songs and why you picked some of the unreleased ones to release.

Sure. As far as The Book of Burning goes, I chose the songs from the past that I still felt connected to, and felt comfortable singing and felt I could sing with sincerity and the band could get behind and feel good about doing. Some of the stuff wouldn't make sense re-doing. But the songs "Don't say Goodbye" and "A Cry In The Night" we still do live, and songs we felt we could achieve maximum velocity with and I think we did. I think they're a 1000 times better versions like "Children of the Storm", or "The Redeemer" or "Guardians of the Flame" than what happened the first time around. The other songs were recorded this summer along with them in the same kind of head space so they make sense sonically. They're all basically recorded in the same studio and around the same time. The songs themselves we had began writing in '85. "Hot and Wild" was originally going to be on Noble Savage. Stuff like "Conjuration of the Watcher" and "The Succubus" was written around then, but then re-written much later and recorded now. Things like "Hellfire Woman", "Rain of Fire", "Annihilation", and the rest of the album was written in '97, and drastically re-written this summer by me, and recorded this summer. So they're all really fresh recordings.



Did you consider re-releasing some of the early albums as they were, as opposed to doing re-recordings?

Yes we did, and we'll probably end up doing something like that at some point in time. We're exploring the situation now and seeing what can be done. I actually began re-mastering the first album from the original tape and it sounds 1000 times better than the old vinyl. I'm not quite finished, I'm about 85% finished with it. Once we sort out some various legalities between us, we can get that stuff out along the way I think.


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Virgin Steele - The very early days


I assume you're referring to the situation that will remain unmentionable which is all over the web and the Noise Records website? Haha.

Yeah, it's a whole lot of bullshit that I had to put a stop to, and we're slowly sorting that out and I think we might be close to some kind of closure on that, just in the past few days because I got myself more involved with it and seeing what's going on and actually took an issue in certain areas, so I think we might have closure to that situation and everyone can be happy and go their merry way.



Yeah, I didn't really want to touch on that too much because that's more, like you said, the "Bullshit" stuff and I wanted talk about the more current stuff, so bringing it up to The House of Atreus, can you give me a bit of background on what was the inspiration for the whole story line behind it.

Yeah sure. When I was very small I was introduced to things like Greek myths and whatnot, because I come from a theatrical household. My father was into stuff like Medeea (sp?) and other things with Shakespeare and whatever, so I grew up watching this stuff and having a fascination for it. I started reading the myths and for some reason the Atreus family, these series of myths, stayed with me. I think because of several reasons. One, the characters, whether they are humans, Gods, Goddesses, demons or whatever, they all behave in a very human like fashion. This is true about most of the myths but especially this one. The other thing is the feeling of timelessness. The story is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago, and will be two thousand years into the future. So this combination of timelessness and the human emotional factor really appealed to me and is always what I try to strive for in all of my works. I thought I could tell the tale, make it relevant today, and give it a feeling of ambiguity of time. It could be the ancient Greeks, it could be today's Greeks, today's Americans, Canadians, or whatever. So that was the inspiration behind that.



Is the second act the conclusion or is there a possibility for and act three maybe?

No, no. It's done, haha! There will be another metal opera/opus thing for 2003 which I will also do a third time in a theatre that we use in south Germany. It will be based on different subject matter though.


So the next studio album, is that what you are referring to in 2003?

No, I think there will probably be another album before that, and will be a collection of songs more in the vein of Noble Savage or Age of Consent. There is a theme to those records but it's not like every song is a story that you have to follow.



As I'm sure you're aware, and as all fans over here in North America keep asking, when will Virgin Steele do a tour of North America? Have plans been underway by either promoters or your label to eventually get something lined up over here?

I think that is more of a reality now because of the merger with Sanctuary. We're actually releasing the record directly on Sanctuary, the two records The Book of Burning and Hymns to Victory. So if all goes well, I think it would be safe to say we could start exploring the possibility and do what we do in Europe in the North American continent. Why not?



Something that I've read about but obviously haven't heard but you've been involved with some operas in Germany. Can you tell me a bit about them and what your involvement entails?

Sure. The House of Atreus, and with all three CDs, we took various selections, not every song from every CD but we took an overall section of the music with eleven actors and actresses singing live on-stage and I made special mixes of the music minus my lead vocals, so that way the effect is when you see it you think Virgin Steele is behind the curtain playing. There's a big PA and there's music blasting out. It's not toned down, it's raw and still heavy and still just what the record is, and it's an elaborate play that's woven through that. The dialogue between the songs is in German but the songs are sung in English as I sung them. The music is the same music from the CDs. We did a similar thing with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell records part one and part two and Invictus. We dispersed all that stuff and made it. There's Mayan(sp?) mythology which concerns people like Emalaith and Dyamon (sp? Ed. note: note sure of the spelling of the name he mentioned here) and all that sort of thing and that's the framework of the play. There's also Nordic mythology in there. Odin is featured pretty prominently and what I was talking about in  "Twilight of the Gods" and  "Rising Unchained" and in Ragnarok.

These have only been done in Germany so far. Is there a reason why that's only been done in Germany or do you think something like that could go over well elsewhere in Europe or maybe even here in North America?

I think it could if you translate it. It's just a question of when and how it's done. We've gone there because it's one of our very strong markets in Germany, and I was actually approached by the theatre to do something. The guy who directed the play called me one day. He was introduced to Virgin Steele by a fan. This girl I know turned him onto the Marriage album saying he really liked some tracks, and he called me one day and said "I'd like you to compose something like an opera for my theatre." As soon as he said this to me, my brain just went "Boom! House of Atreus!" I said "Yeah no problem, I got this thing called House of Atreus I'm working on". Haha, I hadn't worked on anything yet. He said "Uh yeah, Ok fine!". So that was the beginnings of it all. Once it was done successfully I said to the guy "Look there's another opera here, there's another play within this other work that I've already done. Let's explore that before we do anything else.", It might give another shot at people hearing those records. So that's what we did with Hell or  "The Rebels", and that's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Invictus saga. The next one was actually going to be about the first wife of Adam. Not Eve, it was a person called Lilith and she was too much of a woman for poor old Adam, she got kicked out of Heaven and was like the female version of Lucifer. Interesting stuff.



So has any of this been either recorded or videotaped for a possible future release or something?

The plays themselves have all been videotaped. There was some sort of artificial cast recording made. I would use some of those things on DVD at some point I think. The making of, and behind the scenes things and clips from that so people would have an idea what went down.



I remember reading about that on the Noise page earlier this year when it was happening and was thinking "Why can't some of this happen over here?"

Yeah eventually, I would like to see it cross over to other countries. You need a theatre group that's willing to first translate the actual text of the play to whatever language of the country. The songs remain the way they work in English. They don't really translate well because of the melodies are different and all that.



So did you actually perform on-stage or were you more of a behind the scenes role with this?

I didn't take part in the actual stage production, no. My voice, my keyboards, my productions, my mixes were there, and my background vocals and stuff like that. The only time that we actually shared the stage with the opera was in Munich in 2000. It was October that we did the premiere of THE House of Atreus in Munich; and at the end of the performance I got up and sand "Great Sword of Flame" with one of the main characters. And then Edward and I did forty minutes of an acoustic program.



So did you find it at all disappointing that the American metal audience is not quite as strong; in terms of numbers I guess, as Europe is and why do you think Germany is more open to something like that?

I do find it disappointing yes. Why that is? The only guess I could say is because their culture is more wrapped around such things and their schooling is more open to such things than in the states. I really can't speak for Canada because I'm not quite sure. I think it could happen here, but it has to be treated with the right amount of respect and a different slant on it. I mean if you throw it out there like it's going to be some Dio/Iron Maiden thing it's going to appeal to those kinds of people who like that. It will appeal to people that might think you know beyond the day is come and gone, will be put off by that, and it's not like that at all. Virgin Steele music is not anything like those kinds of things. It's a more different harmonic, vocabulary structure; it's it's own thing and I think of it as modern metal and it's pushing the boundaries of metal in a different way. As modern as anybody who is doing hybrid rap metal. It's following a certain line of tradition like from Led Zeppelin forward, but evolving into quite a different beast.



You just mentioned how you're pushing the boundaries of metal, so how do you think that the metal of today, or what your playing today, is compared to the scene or what you were involved with in the earlier 80's?

That was an interesting time because it was the beginnings of the whole thing. I just think it's gotten more sophisticated, more mature and the songs have evolved. It's really become the classical music of the 21st century. I think bands like us and other bands are doing equally nice things; like Gamma Ray or Rhapsody. Their kinda pushing the envelope and trying to bring in classical types of elements, stretching out harmonically, structurally, melodically.



This also brings to mind the Avantasia project from Tobias Sammet from Edguy. You were involved with that and I was wondering what the experience was like and if you could just tell me a little bit about it and what your involvement was with it beyond the singing and did you have any control over the parts that you sang?

It worked like this; he sent me over little snippets of music, and he was doing a rough guy vocal and said "do your own thing with it". So I did my own harmonies and stuff like that. I just sang, from beginning to end, from as soon as the tape ran until it ran out hahaha. I threw in all kinds of extra screams and a couple of vocal accelerations and stuff, and he used them all. So yeah, he phoned me up and asked if I could do it and I said "I wasn't sure because I am in the middle of House of Atreus and I am really bogged down with work. Just give me a long time frame and maybe I could get it done for you, so send it over as quickly as you can".  So I just scheduled in one day where I wasn't going to be working on the ATREUS album. And I did it in one day and sent it off to him and he used it, so I guess he liked it.

If there is a sequel, will you be involved, or would you like to be involved if possible maybe?

I think I am on the second one because it's in two parts and I think I did four or five pieces, and some of them are on the first one and the rest are on the second. The single has this piece called "The Final Sacrifice" which is one of the heavier tracks and that is going to be on the second part; "Seven Angles" I think it's called, with Deep Purplish keyboards and I sang that one too.



So besides being involved with Avantasia, is there anyone else or another type of project you would like to work on (time permitting) outside of Virgin Steele?

Sure, I'm always open to such things but a lot of people don't think I am because some of the things with Virgin Steele; I guess the reputation I have for such things. But I am open to a certain degree but if I like the people and the music I would venture to do something. I would actually like to a production of the ATREUS work on-stage live with other people singing the other parts that I sang on the album. Maybe Pete Steel, maybe Kai Hansen, maybe Doro Pesch.... That's just one of the things I've been kicking around that I'd like to do.

I guess they would play the different characters in the story.

Yeah they would.



Something you mentioned earlier on; I know you come from a musical background in your family, and I was wondering if you could tell me about what your other family members are involved in, in terms of music. And I guess what they all think of Virgin Steele?

My father is involved in theatre, and is still doing it; he originally wanted to be an opera singer. He really likes the deep voice and singing and whatnot. And I think he's quite happy that me and my sister are off doing singing. My mom has a good voice but she never got that involved. She was singing around home and she was an English teacher. My sister Doreen has a career in Germany. She makes CD's and does all kinds of concerts. She's an opera singer who does various requiem and she's done an album of Rigoletto (sp?), Schubert songs... a bunch of different things. That's her thing, opera singing, but she likes Virgin Steele. She's been to a few gigs and whatnot. My other sister had a rock career for a while and raised a family. But they're all quite keen on the band and are very supportive. In fact, for the very first time in Virgin Steele history, no-one has ever sang on a Virgin Steele record except me; on the track "The Chosen One", the first 20 seconds of the introduction is me with my 2 sisters and my opera singer sister's fiancé are all singing there for the first time. Twenty seconds of other people besides me, singing....hahahah. I really like the sound of it and we might do more in the future but it's always been a closed society with Virgin Steele, and that's why I've always done everything myself. I've been the orchestra, bass player, the singer of all the parts and whatnot. We've always wanted to push the boundaries of what a band could do without a cast of thousands.



I remember when I first heard it I was looking at the liner notes and thinking "who's playing these parts"?, and it said Virgin Steele, Virgin Steele they did it all. So that leads me to my next question. What other instruments do you play and what do you play on the recordings? What other things besides your voice has been recorded?

I do all the keyboards and all the orchestration whether it's acoustic guitar, bass guitar, violin, cello, violas; I'm doing that with basically just keyboards. I do play bass guitar as well and I played violin growing up. I played very little of real guitar, but I can do all those things that I do with the keyboard. There's amazing samples today of that. On "A Cry In The Night" and "Spirit of Steel" I'm playing everything you hear. I've always done all the orchestration.



When you play live do you break out the keyboards or is it usually samples?

Yeah we bring them out. I try not to be tied to the keyboards for an entire show but I do play a great amount of them. There are various ways to solving some of those things. Sometimes we're stripping things down and making them a little simpler. We can, and we have briefly worked with things firing off, drummers playing to and wearing headphones but if we need extra parts firing off we can do that. We've experimented with that here and there.



One thing, I think I know the answer to, but I just want some confirmation on; and that is a lot of the time when I see you post on your web site or to the Noise website, a lot of times you  might end it and you'll say "Stay Invictus". I was wondering what does that message mean? I kind of think it to mean "Stay Strong."

Yeah, unconquerable is what that word means. So yeah, stay strong, stay proud, stay undefeated by the bullshit in society today of which there is much. There's always somebody trying to tear you down as soon as you acquire any notoriety or fame; there's always somebody gunning for you. It's like an MC Hammer story haha!!! Just in the past year alone I've encountered a lot of bullshit like that with a lot of people coming out of the woodwork trying to put their hand in my pocket, trying to get away with shit. And well, I'm the wrong guy to do that with.



Another interesting thing that I've always pointed out and a lot of my favorite songs by Virgin Steele have this....and this is the word "fire" in the title. So what is the fascination with fire?

I think of fire as many things. It can heal, it can kill, it's the primeval fire; the gift from Prometheus to humanity. It still burns and it hungers to do this for a thousand more years. it's that concept and the concept of the cleansing aspect of fire burning away the past and bringing something new. Burn them to ashes and then burn the ash. Also, I've had experiences with fire; my brother died in a fire so maybe that has some kind of a thing. He was a musician and a singer and organist, and the club he was playing burnt down, and that was in 1974, so things like that stay with you forever.



Two quick questions about the past if you don't mind me asking. The first is do you have any funny stories about the PileDriver [HA!] project which you were part of. You did help write that didn't you?

The second PileDdriver album I totally wrote with me and Edward, we wrote everything. I'm actually on that record. The spoken thing "The Warning" is me, and all those weird sound effects and stuff, that's me. The drummer was a friend of mine who's actually my next door neighbor, and so is the bass player, he's another neighbor from the neighborhood; two Italian guys who live in Florida now, haha!! What happened was, Edward and I, and the drummer and bass player went into the studio and we recorded everything, all the music, with me guiding them through the vocals one day. The next day we flew Gord in from PileDriver, from Canada. We brought him into the studio, he sang the entire record, then the same day brought him back to Kennedy Airport and put him back on the plane and he went home! And I mixed it, so the record was done in two days!! hahaha....

Wow. That record or those two records are still, in some circles, revered.

It was kind of cool you know. Edward plays guitar in PileDriver and we wrote the stuff . We had fun doing it. I think they could have turned out quite differently if we were doing then as Virgin Steele songs. We thought there were some good ideas there so we wrote the "The Fire God" for House of Atreus ACT 1.


And regarding another band that you produced called Exorcist. They only did the one album. Was there a second album that was worked on that wasn't released?

There was a second album that was partially written and worked on. It never saw the light of day.

And with your involvement back then in producing a few of these bands, do you still have any involvement in that besides your own band now, or is there really no time for that kind of stuff?

I would like to do it but I haven't really had time. At some point maybe.



So that's pretty much all I wanted to ask you about. Is there anything else regarding your new releases that you'd like people to know about that we didn't cover?

I'd just like to mention a little bit. Hymns to Victory was a collection from Noble Savage forward, and there's a lot of rarities on there as well. Re-done things and bonus tracks and whatnot. It's good is somebody is interested in Virgin Steele and has never picked up a record, pick that one up first and explore it. If you like that, then go ahead and explore the catalogue.


So I guess that's everything. Hopefully we'll get to see some DVDs if not concerts here, haha.

Oh yeah, there will be a lot of plans for the future. We're not going away and there's a lot more things to come.


You played at the Metal Meltdown. Was it '99 or 2000 or something?

Yeah, 2000. It was a weird show because we were in the same room, a big giant room divided by curtains with another band playing at the same time as us. We were playing "Defiance" which has all these breaks in it, and every time there was a break you'd hear "ARRRRRGAAAHHHHH", because there was like a Death Metal band playing at the same time. Haha!!!! Quite strange, but it was a cool gig. People liked it.

Has that been the only gig you've done in recent years in America?

No, we did a few in New York here. Not many, but we did a few over the past two or three years. And they weren't really advertised but more hidden, surprise gigs.

Are you able to, on your own, set up a gig in New York where you live in the area?

Yeah, we could do that. We'll probably do more of that at some point. We're going to gear up for Europe and will do some shows here probably before we go, or when we come back.

So there will be a tour for these two CD's then?

There will be sporadic dates because the way our schedule is this year we will probably go back and forth to Europe about two or three times rather than one long run like we did earlier this year. We're going to end up doing like eight weeks, or two months in the beginning and now we're going to do like a week and a half and do other stuff and then do another two weeks and come back and like that.


Well I guess that's everything so good luck with the future and the music to come.

Thanks man, thanks a lot. Nice talking to you.

Cool, nice talking to you too.

Official Virgin Steele site

Noise Records Virgin Steele Page

Thanks to Ronnie and Joel for the transcription!!

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