» Mike Howe - Metal Church
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Interview conducted June 9 2017
Interview published June 24 2017

"That is the $50,000,000 question right there. Do you know what the answer is?"

American West Coast heavy metal veterans Metal Church are touring some of the bigger open air festivals in Europe at the moment and as they made a quick visit to Sweden Rock Festival, Metal Covenant had the pleasure to talk to Mike Howe, who returned to the band in 2015 for his second tenure as the band's vocalist after being completely away from the music scene for over two full decades.

Tobbe: Your latest record, XI, has been out for over a year at this point, so have you guys already started working on number 12?

Mike: Yes! We're very excited. Kurdt [Vanderhoof, guitar] is a very prolific artist. He's a writing machine. So the way we write our records is, you know, he'll go in and he'll just pound out some basic structures of some songs and then he'll send them to me and I'll listen to them and "Yeah, this one is cool and this one is cool, but this one…naa.", and whatever, and we just whittle down. He's got a good pile of some basic start of songs and he and I have started working on them and started putting vocals on and things like that, so we're in process of doing all that. Yeah, we're very excited.

Tobbe: Did it come as a surprise to you that XI reached the band's highest chart position in the States ever?

Mike: Yeah, it's mind-blowing. We had no idea, but obviously we're very pleased and grateful and all that.

Tobbe: Does that give you a lot of energy in doing another record?

Mike: I guess so. Yeah, sure. I mean, if you do something that you're proud of and it has success, then sure that's a motivation to keep going and if it didn't do well you would go "Oh. Well, I thought it was good, but I guess people don't think the same.", you know what I mean? Well "What's the use?", right? So, sure.

Tobbe: When your return was announced a couple of years ago did you come out with kind of no expectations at that point, in order to not get too excited before knowing what would come out of it?

Mike: Yeah, none at all. That was the beauty of it. We had many talks about that, Kurdt and I, when we first started talking about possibly doing it. 'Cause it wasn't like "Hey! You wanna do this?" - "Yeah!". No, it was like "No-o" and then it was like "Well…" and then he started talking to me, like "Well, we could do it… You know, it's not the same." and - "Well, maybe.". We had many, many talks.

So that was part of it and we're not doing this record the way we did it in the past. There's no timeline; he sends me some songs and I listen to them and see how they go, 'cause unless this record is as good or better than anything we've written we're not doing it, right? And there was no talk of playing live or doing anything after that even. We were just like "Let's see if we can write some music. And it's gotta be good. That's the only reason I would come back to this.".

Yeah, it was really great. It was great to have that attitude and that mentality and it put us in the mood of "Let's have fun! Let's just feel it." and that's exactly what we did. It was, you know, a great reunion and he and I were like "Oh yeah! We do have some chemistry.".

Tobbe: It's very remarkable having you coming back after all this time, years and years, but is there a possibility that you will leave one more time, like, for the same reasons as you left the first time? Because, let's face it. The business of music is still pretty rough.

Mike: It's still pretty rough; you're right. But what keeps us positive is that, you know, we're adults now, so we're still in control of everything and we're not being pushed around by a record company or a manager. So it's not like "Oh. Fuck this! I'm not doing this 'cause of that jackass manager of ours.", you know. So that's a big plus for us to say "Why would we stop?", because nobody is pressuring us or telling us anything. And then, you know, we have our lives outside of this as well, to keep us going, you know.

Tobbe: No matter who's the singer, a Metal Church song always sounds like Metal Church, but could there possibly be some adjustments to the music in the future to diverge from, like, the straight Metal Church path?

Mike: I heard Kurdt interviewed recently and he and I are like "We're in Metal Church because we play a certain metal that is us.", you know what I mean? The way we write and the way we feel about music. So it's not like "Oh, well, let's try to expand the way we feel about…". No, we are Metal Church, together, in our format, and we write the songs the way we write them. 'Cause that's what we like, you know.

Tobbe: I don't wanna come out too ingratiating now, but you sing just as great as you did on your first three records and how is that even possible? (Blessing In Disguise (1989), The Human Factor (1991) and Hanging In The Balance (1993).)

Mike: Well, I mean, the first area is, you know, 'cause I didn't scream for so many years that I didn't damage my voice. I don't know if that's true or not, because we can't go back in a time machine and do it and find out, right? But, you know, as an example, James Hetfield, you know, he's still singing strong, 'cause he sings from his diaphragm, and that's what I do.

So if you're a proper singer… You know, there's many styles; there's screamers, you know, and then there's operatic metal singers. We're like opera singers. We yell; controlled yelling. And so, we know how to use our diaphragm, so I mostly think that's where it is, you know.

Tobbe: How much have you practiced to get that vocal style?

Mike: Not since I was back, but… I mean, I sang all those years off, you know. Not metal, but I'm a singer and I'll always be a singer. Even when I'm not singing in a band I'm singing.

Tobbe: Were you singing a lot as a kid too?

Mike: Oh yeah! My mom encouraged me to. You know, I would sing around the house, sing to the radio, all the time, and my mom would go "Oh, sing for me.". Yeah, she was my biggest cheerleader.

Tobbe: If you're playing soccer or hockey; those players start playing when they're young and if you're a singer and start early, of course you'll get better.

Mike: Yeah. And for me it was more, like, emulating singers, like Rob Halford and guys who could sing loud and scream, you know. So I played in a cover band, so I had to sing like them and I had my certain techniques. And then I went to a vocal teacher when I joined Metal Church and he, like, unlocked the door and just went "You're doing well, but you know what? Just this thing here, and this thing here.". He just confirmed what I knew and then helped me just to that next level of keeping my whole instrument moving. You know, breath control and support and all that.

Tobbe: And now that you've shown what you're still able to do, doesn't it come a little bit pressure with that, for a forthcoming record?

Mike: Well, not from the fans or any external pressure; it would be my own pressure. Sure, 'cause I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I want to sound good and I want to be good, so. And that's why I take care of myself, you know. 'Cause my biggest fear is to walk out on the stage and lose my voice. That's embarrassing, right? All those people watching you and you [Mike pretends to lose his voice.]. That scares the shit out of me.

Tobbe: A different question. A hard question. What could have been different if you were the original singer of the band?

Mike: Wow! That's a good question. I've never had that one. What would be different if I was the original singer? Well, first of all we wouldn't have those two amazing albums (Metal Church (1984) and The Dark (1986)), so it's kind of good that I wasn't the first singer, you know.

And I'm proud of Dave Wayne. You know, he was a great screamer. He was a different stylist and that's what made my transition in the band easier for me, 'cause I wasn't like him. So Kurdt was smart like that. You know, he wasn't looking for a screamer again. And a lot of bands make a mistake, I think, as they try to get a singer like their old singer, instead of trying to get somebody that's good, but a little different, you know, and try to build something new out of that.

Tobbe: In the first place, would it have been better for Metal Church, you think, if Metal Church was a European band instead of coming from the West Coast?

Mike: No, I don't think so. A European band, no. I think it was very good for Metal Church to be an American metal band on the West Coast, 'cause they were right in there with Metallica and all those big bands at the beginning. So that was very good. They were in the birth of metal there. Yeah, so that was very good for Metal Church.

Tobbe: I reckon that you guys know your level, popularity-wise, at this point, and is there a way to make the band become bigger, or have you kind of accepted the level that you're now on?

Mike: That is the $50,000,000 question right there. Do you know what the answer is?

Tobbe: Absolutely not. That's why I'm asking you.

Mike: I do not either. I would like to know. These are questions we talk about. I mean, and I would know, 'cause I was out of metal for a while and I didn't follow it very well, but these are good questions 'cause they said "Come back, Mike! We're gonna do great!" and I'm like "How great? What do you mean by 'We're gonna do great!'?" and like "Your album is charting! You're rocketing towards stardom!.", but "Well, maybe, but I don't really know what that means.".

So my only comparison is: I look at bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax; all these bands are big; that we were big in the 80's, 90's, whatever, and see what they're doing now. And Metallica is obviously on their own, you know. You can't talk about that. But, I look at Megadeth and Anthrax and I go "Are they as popular as they were back then or are they a little bit less popular, but still popular enough?", you know what I mean?

So that's what I say! It's like "Is Metal Church more popular than we were when I was in the band the first time, or are we less popular, or are we right at that same, and can you go higher nowadays?". So, I don't know. These are good questions and, you know, we're trying to find that out at this point.

Tobbe: And I think now you have to try to find a new generation of fans of course, because the first generation is, like, people in their 40's and it's quite difficult because there are so many bands out there.

Mike: Yeah, so many bands and, you know, I think part of what it takes to do that and be successful is to be on the road, a lot, all the time, and unfortunately, you know, for some people, for some bands, and Metal Church included, we have families and life at home and we can't be away from our families, you know, 300 days a year.

Tobbe: If you look back at your own catalogue with Metal Church. Which specific album out of those 3 do you wish that you could have recorded with today's recording techniques?

Mike: Oh, I'll tell you. Of course Hanging In The Balance, and Blessing In Disguise. I'm pretty happy with The Human Factor. I think that was one of our best production… You know, mixing… Kurdt and I talk about this all the time too. We always say "God, if we could just re-record the whole entire album of Hanging In The Balance and mix it ourselves.".

Yeah, we'd love to do that. We'd love to, but, you know, it doesn't make sense. And honestly, fans don't really want it to sound different, 'cause they got used to it the way it sounded. Even if we weren't happy with the way it sounded, some people are like "Oh fuck! I love the way that it sounds.", 'cause that's what they were used to at the time and they didn't really know better, per se, but they just enjoyed what they heard.

So that leads me to, you know, the new album. We did everything our way, from beginning to end, writing, recording and mixing that whole album and it's the most satisfying thing for us. Like the unfinished business in our lives. We never got to do it completely our way before and present Metal Church. Mike, Kurdt and the band did this and we can't sit here in years to come and bitch like "Oh, our fucking producer fucked us!" or "Our manager fucked us, otherwise it'd be better!". So we're very proud of that fact and this is what we believe Metal Church should sound like and be like.

Tobbe: So has the new drummer, Stet [Howland], affected the band in those few months that have passed now?

Mike: Yeah, it's crazy. Stet's a great guy. He's such positive, happy, trying hard, super hard to be great with us and it's a great energy to have in the band. You know, Mike Howe coming back was a great energy and now Mike Howe is old school 'cause he's been back for a year and a half. Now this new guy, Stet, is in there and he's like "I wanna be great! You guys are awesome!" and it's a great energy again.

So, we miss Jeff [Plate]. We love Jeff. We wish him well. He's an awesome drummer, but he's got other things that he wants to do and that's fine, but here's an interjection of some newer energy into our band and it's awesome.

Tobbe: So, my last question. Right now, how do you personally look at the band's future in a longer perspective?

Mike: See, that's the great thing about being in Metal Church now too. I don't really look at it in a long perspective. I look at it as living in the moment, enjoying today on that stage, and sitting here with you, you know. Like, I'm thinking about the rest of this year, but in a long-term… We're going to finish up our obligations that we've booked this year. We're coming back to Europe in August and we've got a couple of shows in the United States and then we're gonna stop and we're just gonna work on the new record, to try to put out a new record in 2018 and then take it from there.

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