Ask any die-hard metal fan from just about any time period which movement of their favorite genre of music was the most important, and chances are pretty good that they’ll at least mention the thrash movement of the 1980s. The speed, ferocity, and aggression of the music, coupled with dark, vivid lyrics of war, violence, and politics changed heavy metal from where it already was, and has ever since been considered a cornerstone of bands and styles to come after. Even beyond bands that have incorporated elements of thrash into their own music, some bands have continued to carry the baton of that “true,” “pure” sound of original thrash. But at the same time, those very bands considered to be younger versions of thrash’s founders, are still able to form their own musical identity.
Newbury Park, California’s Warbringer was one of the many bands considered to be part of the “thrash revival,” beginning in the mid to later half of the first decade of the 2000s. Their 2008 debut album on Century Media, War Without End, was met with critical appeal. The quintet then produced three subsequent albums showcasing an expanse in their musical prowess, writing, and composition, all while enduring the challenges of being a professional band, including lineup changes. While on an expansive North American tour with Sweden’s Enforcer, our friends Exmortus, and Toronto, Ontario’s Cauldron (who had to drop off the tour after a van accident), I got to pick the brain of Warbringer’s vocalist, John Kevill on the St. Louis, Missouri date at Fubar. I learned about his observations of current metal culture, his writing style, often being compared to ’80s bands, his love of history, and some other topics that Damnation Magazine covers, including sci-fi, fantasy, and even anime.
Warbringer has been one of those bands credited with the “thrash revival.” Why play that ’80s thrash sound starting in 2004 when you formed? Why was that important to you?
When we started, we were doing more melodic-speed-power thrash for, like, a minute. And then, we moved into straight thrash. And, I don’t know, it wasn’t like… important to us to play any specific genre. [We] just figured we wanted to play some fast and aggressive stuff. We felt like metalcore was lame and death metal – which has its moments – had gotten really boring, by and large. And thrash seemed exciting and riff-focused; it’s pretty much the genre that tries to have the most bitchin’ guitar riffs, and lots of them. So, it was a natural fit for us. Though we’re called a “thrash revival” band, with the possible exception of our first album (War Without End, 2008), none of our albums could’ve come out in the ’80s. Just the musical elements that are on there, there’s plenty of stuff that people just weren’t doing in the ’80s. So, there’s plenty of elements taken from the old sound of thrash metal, which I think is a very legitimate style of music, but as well, it’s not from there. So I think people often overstate how “retro” we are.
Growing up who were some of your influences? Was it simply “The Big Four?” Has what you listen to changed as you’ve gotten older changed, and has that also changed how you write?
Well, it’s been like, ten years since I’ve started the band, so of course. But no, actually most of the same things I liked then, I like now. For us, it was less the “Big Four” kind of bands – for me, with the exception of Slayer; Slayer’s a major influence. But I don’t think we sound very much like Metallica or anything, we really don’t. They never play as fast as we do, as our cruising speed; like, “Dyer’s Eve” is like, slower than most Warbringer songs. And Lars [Ulrich; Metallica, drums and percussion] can’t even play that live [laughter]. So honestly, for us, I think we started as sort of a hybrid of a lot of the Bay-area and German thrash, and we tended to lean toward more of the vicious stuff. Stuff like Kreator, Slayer, Sacrifice, Demolition Hammer, those are all the one’s that I’ve named as, like, our big thrash influences. But, we’re not unaware of the rest of the thrash genre, or the metal genre, which includes all subsects of it, and then, just rock and roll in general. And just any good song idea when we hear it from anywhere. So, most smart bands don’t limit themselves to one thing; it’s influence across the board, and we just try to make sure it all fits the general idea of Warbringer, which is to be vicious and fast and brutal.
I completely agree. And, I’ve also noticed that each Warbringer album has progressed and diversified with its release. What goes into writing a new album? Is there a different direction you want to take it, something you haven’t done yet? Or, is it just kind of whatever happens, happens depending on what feels right?
Well, it’s mainly based on what feels right. On IV: Empires Collapse (2003), the last one, we did deliberately decide, “OK, we’re going to silence all those people who say we’re just ripping off the 80s. We’re going to make an album where, if you say that about this album, sorry man, you’re an idiot; you’re not listening.” [Laughter] And, we did. That album, there’s songs that… could all be on completely different records. So, I think, sort of the downside to our approach on that record is, I feel like it might feel a bit disjointed as a record. But as individual songs [goes], it shows, “Oh, this band is no one-trick pony.”
Agreed! To ask one last question I ask regarding “The Big Four,” in your observation, is there any movement or group of bands that represents what’s going on in metal right now?
OK! Moving on…
Well, it’s a meaningless comparison, you know? There was something called “The Big Four” of thrash metal before. And now, there’s really no equivalent to it. People try to come up with stuff, but in thrash metal, there’s no bands that have found that kind of success. Largely because the original ones are still around. And, to some degree or another, some still deserve to be on the stage, some don’t, in my opinion. You know? Like, honestly, I’ll say this; the double-kick [drum] part from “One,” every fucking sixteen year old who’s learning out to play metal drums learns that, and can nail it by the time they’re seventeen. Lars is like, fifty, and he wrote the thing in ’89, and he still can’t play it [laughter]. What’s you’re excuse, motherfucker? Why do you deserve to be on that stage? Just because your name was on those records doesn’t mean you don’t suck now. Do better, hold yourself to a higher standard of performance, God damn it; if you give a shit about music.
[Laughs] Lars, I know you read this website, so listen up.
But I’m just saying, guys like that. Axl Rose is the worst one. As someone who’s been out there doing this shit night after night, it’s really, really infuriating how that’s all people talk about. “Oh, are you going to be the Big 4?” No, we’re us! “Do you think it’s good? Do you think it sucks?” Um, how about judging things by their own merit? And also, these guys that are on these holy alters a lot of time aren’t even any fucking good live anymore! So, take them off the holy alters! Let some new bands move in there, and maybe there will be bands that move the genre forward. But, until the culture of metal changes, stop with the “sacred cow” ‘80s worship. There’s great bands from the ’80s, there’s shitty bands from the ’80s, there’s songs from famous records that aren’t as good as songs that are made on records that nobody knows about that are coming out today. Seriously, a lot of the, “Remember when?” “That metal show…” kind of culture in metal sucks so hard if you’re a new band. Because you can write great material and put everything you have into it, and make killer records, and people are just like, “…Eh, it’s not the ’80s.” That’s the stupidest mentality, because if you haven’t fucking noticed, those people are either dying off, or are starting to sucks.
…For the record, that was Nick’s question, not mine.
Well, I explained what I think about that. [Laughter]
Moving right along, then. Even despite many lineup changes, Warbringer has remained a strong and relevant metal band. Why is it important to you to keep the band going in some way, through either touring or recording?
Well, I believe in the music we play. I think that we have advanced on every record. I feel like I still get better, personally, as a vocalist – this ties in to what I said just before. I believe I’m still getting better, and therefore, I still have something to offer the world. The moment I stop feeling like I’m better today than I was yesterday, I have no further business doing this. But as long as I can say, “I have no ideas that I think are exciting,” and as long as I can say that my performance is as good or better than it was yesterday, then I still have business doing this. I believe all that’s true, so that’s why I’m still here.
Fantastic! Warbringer has toured with all kind of respectable acts, both as support or a headliner. This tour is really cool and diverse. How did this co-headlining tour with Enforcer come about? How did Cauldron and Exmortus get on the bill? Was any of that something that you had a say in? Or was it all band management or press representation?
…I had a Super Saiyan. [Laughter] Sorry man, I had to. Anyway, we pretty just got offered a tour with Enforcer. Enforcer has only been to the U.S.A. once. They’re coming out with good albums, people in the underground metal community like them. They’re a Swedish band… They wanted to, pretty much, package themselves with a band from America that can help draw for the shows, so that they can get exposure from an audience. I think they’re a good band, I’m a fan of their records personally. So we accepted, and on that general premise of a Warbringer/Enforcer co-headlining tour, Exmortus and Cauldron were added. Exmortus kind of by us, Cauldron by Enforcer. They have toured the U.S. together before, and we have been in the L.A. scene with Exmortus for forever. So that’s kind of how it came about. And yeah, it’s a fairly diverse package, and that makes it really not boring. Many people say… because we’re sort of a brutal, vicious, savage band, and Enforcer is like – in my opinion, when I hear it – more of a fun, singalong rocking band. And for some people, that’s crazy. But shit, listen to the instrumentation; there’s sixteenth notes, there’s thrash beats, they’re hauling ass and playing fast. It’s like, kind of packaging 1983-style thrash metal with still a lot of the elements of heavy metal, verses what we play is more – in my opinion – like, ’89-’90s leaning style, where it’s more riff-focused, more rhythmic, and the melody in the vocals is totally gone.
Awesome! …Kamehameha. [Laughter] Sorry, I had to throw that in there, too.
[Laughs] I’ve never even watched that show.
Oh man, you’re missing out! OK, back to the interview. Metal fans have always loved to criticize or at least poke fun of all of the different subgenres, especially the ones that they don’t like – particularly if something earns the label of “false metal,” whether its nu-metal, metalcore, deathcore, djent, etc. This is especially in the age of the internet and social media. And I recall several years ago, at least one show where Warbringer opened for Slipknot in the past. How do you balance that aspect of the culture as a professional musician, as some fans voice such displeasure with bands of different subgenres ever associating with each other?
Well OK, listen. I am, according to my own tastes, sort of a metal purist. Stuff that’s not metal at all, I’ll listen to all kinds of stuff. But stuff that’s even slightly metal, I want it to be all the way, or not. So bands like Slipknot and stuff, no, I’m honestly not a fan, never have been. However, you’ve got to realize as a fan, that if you’re going to say, “Oh, ‘X-band’ sold out because they opened for this other band!” Look, we got so much flack, I remember, when we did that one gig opening for Slipknot. And it’s not like I started wearing face paint or a clown mask, or we started incorporating DJ sections [laughter]. “Total War” is the same fucking song that we opened with; if anything [we played it] even faster so that we could blow the socks off of all of the fourteen, fifteen kids that were there, and make them [react] like, “Oh, shit! I thought Slipknot was the heaviest band here!” [Laughter] Little did they know.
So, honestly though, people who have that mentality, I can say, as someone who goes out and does heavy metal – like, I go out and play this shit; I’m in the trenches, you know? – [they’re] full of shit, you’re stupid! Don’t talk like that anymore. If you’re favorite underground band gets a gig opening for some shitty mainstream band, be happy for them! As long as your favorite underground band doesn’t change themselves, that’s the only part you should care about. Then, getting a wider audience means that they can make more records. Because if your band never gets a wider audience, they’re not going to tour, they’re not going to make records, because it’s impossible. If no one knows your band, you can’t really have a successful tour. So therefore, it’s in the interest of you, the listener, that the band you like has an audience. So, support them in getting that; realize that “trve metal” as we know it, is a very small and niche thing, compared to music by and large.
And honestly, people outside of “trve metal” are missing out on a great form of music that really should be more know, and should be more recognized. And because it has more legitimacy to the compositions than a lot of other things. So therefore, I think it’s good when bands get out and play to larger and wider audiences. You know what? If they wanted to put us opening for Justin Beiber, or some horrible schlock like that, guess what? “Total War” is the same song! [Laughter] It doesn’t fucking change! I would kind of relish in that just to make people scratch their heads, you know?
I agree, I’d honestly pay to see Warbringer open for Justin Bieber [laughs].
Well, I’m making a point. As long as your band doesn’t change and the songs don’t change, what are you complaining about? We don’t change for someone else. At least I don’t.
Music in general, but especially metal, and even more especially thrash, has been known for lyrical themes stemming from – among other things – politics. How has the current and recent political climates affected your writing, especially during this age of social media and 24-hour news networks? Or does that even play in at all?
Oh, absolutely! I’m studying to be a history professor; I’m in, like, two years in of six right now, so not too close. But I definitely need to have a career outside of metal, because metal as a career doesn’t work, basically. When I started writing… I’ve always been into history, historical battles, the World Wars and everything. So, even on the first and second albums, when I was consciously not doing anything specifically political, I was. Because, talks about, sort of the futile human sacrifice of warfare, and just how savage and inhumane that is… Even on the random violence and destruction language of the first album. And then other songs, like on the second album, other songs like “Forgotten Dead” (from Waking Into Nightmares, 2009) has some moralizing in the lyrics. And then on the last two albums, there’s stuff… I’m never, ever going to specifically reference [anything]; like, I’m not going to have a song that says, like, “ISIS!” or something. I’m never going to do that, because I like to deal with [things] in more allegorical context. But, for instance, “Hunter-Seeker” (from IV: Empires Collapse, 2013) is about surveillance, and I just sort of wrote it as if you’re being track by this robotic killer that they found you on a network with – which is not too far from drones. So, I sort of take a fantasy-edged version of whatever’s going on, and I make songs about that. “Towers Of The Serpent” (from IV: Empires Collapse, 2013) is probably the most political song we have. A lot of the lyrics come from the film Conan The Barbarian, and Thulsa Doom’s Snake Cult. And in that movie, he’s trying to amass power over the masses and become a god. And I’m like, “What are the multi-billionaires of today doing?” They’re doing the exact same thing; they’re trying to elevate themselves over other men, obtain the “power over flesh,” and “the will to dominate.” And basically, I think [that’s] evil and needs to go. But I wrote the song that way, because I think it’s more powerful, and more interesting, and more intelligent, honestly.
“Steel is strong, but flesh is stronger.” [Laughter]
Well, as it turns out, Thulsa Doom gets his head chopped off. So ultimately, he’s wrong, and that’s not the “Riddle Of Steel.” We may never know what the true riddle of steel is, and Crom will laugh at us, and cast us out of Valhalla.
…Well then, I say, “To hell with you!”
[Laughs] My favorite movie is that and Aliens, the second movie.
Really! Not the first one, huh?
Second one’s way better.
Well, since there’s an upcoming sequel in the works, I have to ask you your thoughts on Prometheus.
Um, there was some potential, and a lot of it was wasted. [Laughter] Like the scene where the spaceship’s rolling at them? Run to the side! Or, I hate how they find the “engineer” guy in the capsule, and I was expecting him to come out and lay down some wisdom and explain some shit, and instead he’s just, “Raaahh! Scary monster!” Or how the Earth sends its most trained and intelligent scientists to go investigate this really important thing, and the first thing they do is like, “Let’s smoke weed!” And, “There’s this gooey stuff… Let’s put our finger in it!” This is not what scientists would do. [Laughter]
Exactly. To wrap it up, what can you tell us about any plans for a new album in the future? If so, what can we expect?
Well, I hope that this year, we will actually finally make a new album. I’m going to try my best on it, and that’s all I really can say. I know, pretty much what I want to do with the next album, I know what I want to call it, I have a few songs worth of lyrics written, there’s riffs [written]. We even had a [new] song that we were playing over the summer. But, it’s just been such a struggle to keep the band moving in any capacity. And actually, with the recent events right before this tour, and the return of Carlos Cruz (drums; 2011-2014, 2015-present), I’m actually a lot more enthusiastic about writing a record than I was, say, six months ago.
Well we look forward to hearing any new material, and all the best in becoming a history teacher!
[Laughs] Well, you know, you just have to fight against stupid one way some way or another. It’s sort of taking over, and someone’s got to do something.
So you have two contributions to society: teaching history and music.
Well, only one of those so far, but that’s the plan. I believe in doing something that I feel contributes. So that’s why I’ve chosen the things I have. Because, I simply want to be able to look at myself and say, “Hey self, you’re a good person.”
I think that’s what we’re all striving to do.
Oh no, it’s not; a lot of people are striving for all the evil dominance over others. And that’s the problem; we’ve got to fix that, or human civilization will eventually fail if we’re not able to leave that in the past with some ugly, animalistic side of our species. We need to evolve past that if we’re actually going to make it in the next two, three hundred years.
[Laughs] …Or not. Or you are doomed. “To you, the power is yours, and you can find it and cure humanity, or you’re completely fucking doomed.”
…So find out for yourselves! You might just be surprised. [Laughter]
Special thanks to John for sitting down with us, and Ebony Jeanette of Concrete Marketing for setting up the interview. Check out Nick’s photo gallery of Warbringer’s set while on tour with Enforcer, Cauldron, and Exmortus at Fubar