MANILLA ROAD needs no introduction. For those unfamiliar, head to www.ManillaRoad.net to educate yourself, then read on to educate yourself some more. Mark “The Shark” Shelton, leader of the underground/cult legends, and creator of the Epic Metal genre, once again took the time to discuss the ongoing journal that is the ROAD.
It’s been a few years since we last talked, and you’ve been pretty busy since then, with two new studio albums, a live album and new website. You like to keep busy, don’t you?
I do like to enjoy my time off when I get a chance but for the most part I keep busy all the time. It seems to be the best way to keep the band alive and the creative juices flowing. I guess I am sort of a workaholic when it comes to the music. It's my main love in life except for my children. I don't have a girlfriend to keep me wrapped up in personal drama so it is pretty easy to remain dedicated to the art. And I have found over the last three decades that dedication is how you make people take notice sometimes. If you hang around long enough someone will eventually take notice.
“Playground Of The Damned” is the first album in a long while to sound more in vein with the “classic” MANILLA ROAD sound, reminding me of the period around “The Deluge” and “Open The Gates”. Was this intentional at all?
Different MR styles creep into everything I do now it seems. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it just sticks it's bloody nose out no matter what. I like to intentionally reprise certain moments in our past albums in the new material every once in awhile. For example there is a part in “Epitaph To The King” that is loosely based upon one of the parts of the “Ninth Wave” off of “Open The Gates”. As for “Playground” I think it is the mood more than anything that reminds me, at times, of the older projects. So I agree with you about some of the songs having a style that was derived from some of our 80's projects. I don't think it was really intentional to make this happen as much as it just manifested itself during the creation of some of the songs.
Many of the Viking/Folk-type elements absent on “Playground” too. Do you go into an album with a specific goal of what it will sound like, or do you tend to go with whatever muse is striking you at the time?
It is a bit of both really. If it is a concept album that we are doing like “Gates Of Fire” or “Voyager” then the whole thing is pretty much plotted out ahead of time. Of course you let the muse intervene whenever she strikes you with an idea though. I never ignore those spur of the moment ideas that always tend to happen while working on a project. “Playground Of The Damned” was not really a planned out project though. The recordings and creations of the songs came over a long period of time and so it was mostly the muse of the moment that is being heard on this album.
Lyrically, “Playground” is probably the darkest material since “Mystification” or “Out Of The Abyss”. Tell me about the lyric writing process.
“Playground” is a very dark project and I think that some of that came from that fact that the times for the band over the last couple of years have been really strange and difficult for us. It seems that much of the dark attitude of the times slipped into the creation process of the music for the album. There were many frustrating and confusing events that happened with band member changes and personal turmoil that was going on with our bass player's bouts with health problems and our drummer's bouts with personal problems. Much of the album, especially “Abattoir de la Mort”, is really about our studio and all the rough and trying times that we have been through in making the studio what it is today. I was also starting to work on a project called HELLWELL with some other musicians that most likely had a bit to do with the darker approach of this album. “Playground” could almost be thought of as a transition piece towards the HELLWELL project. HELLWELL is very dark and heavy and sort of the omega to MANILLA ROAD's Alpha.
I’ve seen several reviews of “Playground”, where some are claiming the songwriting is weaker than normal, and others are taking issue with mix. Personally, I think the songs themselves are some of the best you’ve written, but I do understand the complaints on the mix, as it seems particularly low-fi. [Ed. Note – In the interest of full disclosure, it turns out the copy I originally had was a poor rip from the LP, which I discussed with Mark. The actual CD simply sounds like classic MR.] How do you respond to criticism, especially considering that as a completely underground band, MANILLA ROAD is truly a labor of love?
With such a large catalog behind us and so many different styles of metal that the band has produced over the years it never surprises me when we do something that is not received by everyone as great music writing. Sometimes the longer you are around the more people expect from you. This band has played in almost every style of Metal that there is at one time or another and let's face it...it is hard to please everyone at the same time. I will just keep writing what I feel the muse pulls me towards. As for the production of “Playground Of The Damned” I stand behind the production on this one 100%. The drums are a little dryer in the mix than I would like but that is the way Cory wanted them to sound. I do know that when the first reviews were coming out that there was some concern about the mix but as time is showing everyone now these reviews were done while listening to a early rip from the LP and not a true copy of the project. And it sounded like shit. The CD that has been released actually sounds really good and I think the production on the album is better than our last effort for sure. It is just another example of how free digital bootlegging has hurt the industry. I wonder how many other projects from other bands have received poor reviews because of a similar situation?
And on the final mix, I know you do the recording and production work in your own studio, so were you deliberately going for a really raw sound this go-round?
Not particularly. I mean I do love the older style of recording techniques to a degree but we did not intentionally try and make this album sound retro. Once again I think it may have to do with the version of the release you are listening to. You are correct that we do all the recording mixing and production work on the projects ourselves most of the time and we did so on “Playground” also. But the CD that is being sold in the stores and online sound really good to me and I think they are a good representation of the work that we did. But if you are listening to a poor rip of the project then I would have to put that off on the rip and not the production.
Your playing on ”Playground”, especially in the leads and solos, is incredibly soulful and, for lack of a better word, emotional. How do you approach lead playing? Do you map out your solos, as some guitarists do, or just go with what comes naturally?
It depends on the songs actually. Sometimes I am meticulous about writing a lead part and then there are times that I just go with the flow. For example: the solo on “Voyager's” “Tree Of Life” is a one shot solo that I just happened to score on the first time I played it in the studio. I went in to the studio just to lay a scratch track down for the song so that the drummer would know where the solo was in the song and I laid it down in one take. I had always planned on going back and doing the solo again later but nobody would let me touch the solo saying that it was perfect the way it was. So that one off solo is what stayed on the final recording. Then there are the solos that I work at for eight or nine hours trying to write the perfect solo for the song. My engineer, Dr. Doom (Derek Brubaker) as we call him, gets really bored when I am going through this process because all he has to do for those long hours is listen to me struggle with parts as he pushes the same buttons over and over again on the mixing board and recording decks. Ha ha the poor bloke. I really do try and let the muse direct me as much as possible when it comes to the music creation and especially the leads.
So, after really enjoying the work of Cory “Hardcore” Christner on the new album (he especially killed on “Abattoir de la Mort” and “Brethren Of The Hammer”), it turns out he’s now out of the band. What happened?
Yea Cory is an incredible drummer with hands of flames. That was a really hard decision to make considering that Cory had been with us for about eight or nine years. Unfortunately Cory was having a lot of turmoil in his personal life that was really starting to interfere with what the band was doing. We did not tour outside of the states at all in 2010 because of Cory not being able to leave the states due to personal issues that he was having. It was more of a dedication issue between us when it came right down to it and I was not willing to sacrifice the progress of the band to wait on him any longer to get his personal issues under control. There was no guarantee that things were going to get better and I could not wait anymore. We had already booked the Hammer of Doom festival and when it turned out that he was not going to be able to do that show in Germany it felt like the hand of doom coming my way. I knew that the HOD was a really important show for MR and I dared not cancel it. For that matter MR has never canceled a show that we have signed contracts on. And I was not about to start canceling shows. So I got Andreas [“Neudi” Neudurth] to do that show with us and told Cory what I was doing. At first Cory thought it was the right thing for me to do. But after about a week he decided he was butt hurt over it and was pretty upset with me. In the end he told me that he knew that it was his fault and he just did too little too late as he put it. After doing the show at HOD with Neudi it was obvious to me that we had found a drummer that was really driven to make the show and his performance as perfect for the MR fans as possible. So after much time contemplating the situation I made the decision to change drummers and proceed on with Neudi. I still think it was the best choice to make and I stand behind my decision on the matter. Don't get me wrong I still have a huge respect for Cory and I wish him much luck with his other band. But I will always make the choice that is best for MANILLA ROAD. The band is my life as it is others as well and I have an obligation to my band mates and my fans to do whatever it takes to keep MANILLA ROAD alive and kicking.
What else can you tell us about Andreas? MR has have the fortune of some really talented and distinctive drummers, so he has some big shoes to fill.
Yes he does have some big shoes to fill but I know he is the man to fill those shoes. He only had three days of rehearsing with us before the HOD show and he learned 25 songs with us during that time and performed them all expertly at the show. That really told me a lot about the quality of drummer and musician Neudi is. His dedication to the ROAD is huge. He has been a fan since 1986 and professes on his German TV show that MR is his favorite band of all time. And he has proven that to all of us here in the MANILLA camp. He has a more classic metal style of drumming than Cory but yet he can play the stuff that Cory can. He sounds more like Randy Foxe than anyone I have ever heard and that actually makes some sense since Randy is one of his favorite drummers of all time as well. I have known Neudi for many years and have been friends with him for that long as well. But when we started spending so much time together working on music and rehearsing it became evident that Neudi was not just a fill in drummer for us but the future of the bands sound as well. He is no longer just a friend but a brother from another mother. He is so understanding of the MR philosophy and direction that it is incredible. He is a perfect match or fit for MANILLA ROAD and I am honored to have the chance to play with this chap. The whole thing has me pumped so much that I know there will be many great songs and albums that will rise out of all of this. I guess we will find out for sure when we are together in our studio come June and July to work on the next MANILLA ROAD album.
On to the new website (http://www.manillaroad.net/), it looks really nice, and provides a wealth of information for both old and new fans alike. What brought you around to finally getting a good web-presence?
I'm old school man. It just took me a long time to realize that we really needed a site of our own. It's always been about the music for me and not the promotion. I have to really force myself to work on promotion stuff because I would much rather be in the studio working on music or on the road performing. But I must say that I could not have done the website without the other people on my staff that really put their hearts into making it all happen.
The store section is certain to be most appreciated by the fans, as MANILLA ROAD merchandise isn’t the easiest to come across. Have you much success with this section?
Yes it was a huge surprise to me when we put up the site the sales started happening right away. I am just really glad that we now have a site that everyone can get the real official merchandise from.
I’m sure you also enjoy having a forum for getting news to fans.
Yep and what is cool is that after awhile everyone will know where to get the official news of the band and our projects and shows. My Engineer, Dr. Doom, is our web master and he has done a great job of making a really cool site for us. He is going to be upgrading the site as time goes on and it will continue to grow and expand as time goes by.
Now, for some odds and ends. From various other interviews I’ve read, it sounds like there’s a lot of unreleased MR material in your archives from various recording sessions. Have you ever considered releasing this material, maybe as a box set or something? I assure you there are plenty of us that would kill to get our hands on something like that.
Yes we have thought of that but the last thing I would want to do is make anyone think that we are doing something like that just to make the money and not paying attention to quality anymore. The reason I say that is because the tapes we are talking about are not professionally recorded and most are of really poor quality. The other issue is that all these tapes are really old formatted tapes. It would be a real chore to find all the correct machines to play these things tapes on for one thing and the other is that all these tapes are so old that the tapes could only be played maybe once and then the oxidation would flake off and the tapes would completely useless then. If we were to try and use them we would have to have all the tapes baked and set up to transfer them all to digital. After the baking of the tapes they can only be played once or twice and then they are useless. But it is the only way to get a good rip off of them without the emulsion flaking off on the playback heads of the deck. It would be really time consuming and expensive to do all of this and to tell you the truth I would rather be spending that time on working on new material instead.
And speaking of unreleased material, how’s the response been to “After Midnight Live”? It’s an enjoyable listen, and I find “Chromaphobia” to be unearthed gem.
Thanks for the kind words man. The response has been really good. And this project being unearthed is sort of an example of what I meant about not releasing old stuff just to make money. Everyone knows that the material on “After Midnight Live” has never been released on a MR album and so it makes all that material really viable for a release because even though the recording is very old the music is new to everyone. It is also sort of an insight to where the band came from, style wise, originally. And I also feel there are a couple of lost gems in the track listing. Songs like “Life's So Hard” and “Dream Of Peace”. Some fans have really gravitated to “Pentacle Of Truth” and you and many others are enamored with “Chromaphobia”. “Herman Hill” is a hit for us with our local fans at home because it is about an event that happened here in Wichita, Kansas. So yeah the project has been a great success for us and I think an important look into the past of MANILLA ROAD.
Also, the released material was the second half of a radio show, correct? Out of curiosity, do you recall what the first half consisted of?
Yep I do. It was mostly music that was on our first album “Invasion”. We still have not found that tape yet. But I am glad that the tape that did survive was the tape with the unreleased songs on it.
As stated on your website, you have two other non-MR projects in the works, MISKATONIA and HELLWELL, as you discussed earlier. Can you give us some more insight on what those projects will entail, and when we might be seeing some material surface?
The MISKATONIA project is just a one time deal that I am doing with Scott Peters and Mark Anderson who were both members of MANILLA ROAD during the “Atlantis Rising” and “Spiral Castle” days. They both appeared on those two albums and did a good amount of touring with us also. Mark came to me with an idea for a album primarily based on H.P. Lovecraft stories and of course with H.P being one of my favorite authors in horror I had to accept the offer. I am mainly just the singer in this group. I am writing vocal melodies and lyrics and singing and it looks like I will do a couple of guitar solos here and there but the rest of the stuff is in the hands of Mark and Scott. It has a very doom like feel to the whole project.
HELLWELL on the other hand is a band that I will pursue for some time I think. Jonny Thumper Benson on drums along with E.C.Hellwell on bass and keys, me on guitars and vocals and guest appearances of Josh Castillo and Bryan Patrick as well. It is like the evil twin of MANILLA ROAD. The topics are more like horror metal with a bit of an epic touch. It almost sounds like DEEP PURPLE or URIAH HEEP meets MANILLA ROAD. All the material is very dark in nature and the lyrics are mostly horror and adventure fantasy based. It ranges from Thrash to Doom and many points in between. At times it reminds me of the ROAD and at times it comes off completely different than anything I have ever heard. I really love the sound of this project and it should be released in the next couple of months.
MR is headlining the Warriors Of Metal Festival in Ohio this year, along with HELSTAR. It’s got to be a great time playing with other underground legends, especially in front of fans who live and breathe underground Metal.
Oh hell yeah. We have toured with HELSTAR before and have always had fun with James and the crew. Can't wait to do it again. It is especially good to be doing this sort of thing on our home turf in the states. It's about time that the US got it's head above water when it comes to Heavy Metal and especially true style classic metal.
After 15 studio albums, and two live releases, do you ever see a point where you step away from music, or do you continue to hold on the mantra made on “Dig Me No Grave”, over 20 years ago?
I'm standing my ground man. I will not stop as long as there are fans out there that wish me to continue. Music is my life and my mission. I have always felt that music was my calling in life and it has come to the point that MANILLA ROAD is just as important as the music itself. So as you said dig me no grave because I'm going to keep slamming out the songs as long as I have the breath of life within me.
It’s been a real pleasure having the opportunity to talk with you again, Shark. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a thanks to you for doing this interview and as always a thank you to all our fans, friends and supporters that have made this all possible for us. It is their undying support of MANILLA ROAD that keeps the fires burning in camp Manilla. Blessed Be to all ye Brethren of the Hammer.
Up The Hammers & Down The Nails
May The Lords Of Light Be With You
1979: Demo (Demo)
1980: Invasion (CD, Roadster)
1982: Metal (CD, Roadster)
1983: Crystal Logic (CD, Black Dragon)
1985: Open The Gates (CD, Black Dragon)
1986: The Deluge (CD, Black Dragon)
1987: Mystification (CD, Black Dragon)
1988: Roadkill (Live) (CD, Black Dragon)
1988: Out Of The Abyss (CD, Black Dragon)
1990: The Courts Of Chaos (CD, Black Dragon)
1992: The Circus Maximus (CD, Black Dragon))
2001: Atlantis Rising (CD, Iron Glory)
2002: Spiral Castle (CD, Iron Glory)
2003: Mark Of The Beast (CD, Monster)
2005: Gates Of Fire (CD, Battle Cry)
2008: Voyager (CD, My Graveyard)
2009: After Midnight Live (CD, High Roller)
2011: Playground Of The Damned (CD, Shadow Kingdom)
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