BLOOD BROTHERS – interview with David Wilkinson vocalist with North East metallers Spartan Warrior.

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Out of Sunderland came North East NWOBHM band Spartan Warrior who recorded two albums in the 1980’s. After reforming in 2009, original members the Wilkinson brothers have held together the latest line up of the band…‘When Spartan Warrior finished recording the Steel n’ Chains album in 1983 we were told there was a lot of interest from the industry. We were signed to the label Roadrunner and started work on the second album pretty much straight away. At one point we were told not to speak to any press and not play any more shows. Sort of keep quiet, say nothing, do nothing and watch them all start knocking on the door tactic. Of course the very next thing we did was to book a headline slot at Sunderland Mayfair, blow the roof off and announce that we had Steel n’ Chains done and the release was imminent. At one stage there was talk of UK tours with AC/DC and Whitesnake but they didn’t materialise. I don’t think we really had any firm opportunity to make a mark on the live circuit further than the North. I left the band in 1985, but over the last 7 years we’ve put that right having played in Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Greece and Spain as well as gigs at home here in the UK.  

(From 2011 the line up has been Neil Wilkinson (guitar) Dan Rochester (guitar) Tim Morton (bass) James Charlton (drums) and David Wilkinson (vocals).

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How did you get involved in playing music, and was there a defining moment when you said “I want to do that” ? ’I don’t think there was any one defining moment. I just loved music. My influences go back to the early 70’s and the Glam Rock years. I guess back then it was pretty mainstream stuff. Bands like Sweet, Queen, Slade, Marc Bolan and T Rex. The first single that I bought was Alice Cooper’s Schools Out back in ’72 and I still have that along with loads of 45’s by T Rex, Sweet, Slade, Cockney Rebel and Queen. I then started buying albums. Sweet Fanny Adams by Sweet, Old New Borrowed and Blue by Slade. Indiscreet by Sparks and A Night At The Opera by Queen. That was a great foundation for what was to come in late 75/76. A friend of mine whose brother was a DJ in a local rock club introduced me to bands like Zeppelin, Free and Jethro Tull. I found my way into Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, UFO and all of the other bands that people today would regard as classic rock. Probably my greatest influence is Phil Mogg from UFO. I think he’s a great songwriter and performer with a great stage presence and a very understated and yet dynamic vocal delivery. I was a fan first and foremost and my brother Neil and I were always around music. Neil would probably admit that he really ended up listening to what I was picking up on and being influenced by that. In truth Neil was probably drawn to the performance side at a much earlier age than I was. We both got guitars for Christmas one year and we sort of knocked them around without any direction of how to play. It was Neil who really stuck that out. As a kid Neil had guitars, an organ and even a set of bagpipes at one point! He started playing guitar seriously from about 12 years old. When I was 14 I used to go into Sunderland Town Centre on a Saturday afternoon and watch local covers bands. That made something of an impression on me and was probably the catalyst’. 

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How did Spartan Warrior get together ? ‘I was 16 when I joined my first band with Neil and some school friends. The band was called Easy Prey and we played covers and a couple of originals. We played a show at Bede School in Sunderland and at The Catholic Club in Hendon, Sunderland. That will have been 1978 I imagine. I recall that I had recently finished my O’Levels and had just left school. I ended up quickly moving on from that and joined a local band called Deceiver who were playing a mixture of covers and originals on the North East Club and bar circuit. I just turned 17 and it was a real step up from what I had been doing up until then. Spartan Warrior evolved from Deceiver when Neil and his friend John Stormont (Jess Cox Band/Battleaxe) came on board and we began to focus much more on writing our own material which was really changing direction in line with the way Neil and John were playing’.

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play?  ‘With Deceiver and then with Spartan Warrior we really just gigged around the North East through 1980 to 1985. We played working men’s clubs and bars. Places like Ashington Central Club, The Old 29 and The Mayfair in Sunderland. Back in about ’83 we played a bar in South Shields called The Brunswick. It was rough as hell. They had strippers dancing on high podiums behind the bar and they had a rotating projector that rotated images of naked women onto the walls… like a moving mural of tits and ass. I remember standing having a pint with John Stormont who played guitar alongside Neil. John was leaning against the wall and this collage of female nudity was rotating over him and the wall in ever changing fleshy images – and then the thing just stopped rotating and projected a giant tit right in the middle of his face. He was just standing looking at me with this giant nipple where his nose used to be and I just cracked up when he went to take a sip out of his beer’. 

Where do the ideas come for your songs ? ’The material on the first two Spartan Warrior albums was lyrically pretty spontaneous and quite standard rock fare really. We used to jam ideas at rehearsals and I’d usually write lyrics on the spot while the guys were jamming the structure and arrangement. Being brutally honest it was pretty much occult, war, sex and rock n’ roll themed stuff. Typical heavy metal material with not much thought given to it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like the songs – it just means that I’m a little more mature now. I like to take my time over melodies, themes and lyrics and if I want to make a social comment or say something from a life experience I can do that. If I don’t have anything to say I can just write a song about sex instead!

‘With the last two albums – Behind Closed Eyes 2010 and Hell To Pay 2018 – whilst inevitably there’s still a bit of traditional heavy metal lyricism I do tend to draw on life experience. Things that have happened to me, things that I’ve read about or seen, my perspective on things. It can be quite personal at times although people wouldn’t necessarily pick up on the autobiographical nature of some of the stuff I write. Behind Closed Eyes for example is about a condition known as sleep paralysis. It occurs while the subject is between sleep and awakening and the effect is an awareness of surroundings accompanied by an inability to move, speak or fully awaken. It’s quite frightening and more so as it can be accompanied by night terrors which can be both auditory and visual. Some people say that it’s demonic restraint or possession and that’s a frightening thought. There’s a line in that song “I try to wake, I try to move death’s weight on top of me/afraid to look my eyes stay closed, afraid of what I’ll see/ my fear takes me, I’m paralysed, behind closed eyes.” That pretty much sums up the experience and the songs theme.

The Behind Closed Eyes album cover shows a silhouetted figure restrained by a bar and chain. Lots of people think that it’s a sexual thing but it isn’t. It’s a photograph taken by a guy called Craig Mod who, coincidentally, photographed that image on the very theme of the song. When we saw his pictures and realised the connection we contacted him and he gave us permission to use his photograph for the album cover. Walking The Line from the Behind Closed Eyes album is about Sado Masochism and bondage. Last Man Standing is about a street fighter and As Good As It Gets is a sarcastic look on the world through the eyes of a depressive. So it’s pretty diverse stuff. 

Cut to the Hell To Pay album and there’s the title track which tells the tale of a dying man who realises too late and as he draws his last breath that for his lifetime of sin his soul is to be taken to hell. Court Of Clown’s is a bit of a commentary on people who sit at their computer keyboards expressing their views about people, sort of an anti-keyboard warrior song. Shadowland was written about Vampires and was inspired by my reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Covered In Lust is about pornography. Fallen is a tribute to the 300 Spartan’s who died at their final stand and In Memoriam is an anti-war/anti-terrorism song. Sort of a modern day War Pigs. So again it’s pretty diverse stuff and I’m quite proud of the lyrics’.

What are your experiences of recording and studio work ?  ‘The Steel n Chains album (1983) was recorded at Guardian Studio’s in Pity Me, Durham. We worked with Guardian’s owner/producer Terry Gavaghan on that. It was our first time in the studio. We paid for our own studio time and to all intents and purposes we recorded what we thought were our best 10 songs. It really was a very unfettered and raw process. We just went in and what we played went down. We recorded two songs per session and I think we had a lot of fun during those sessions.

We signed to Roadrunner around about the same time as we finished up Steel n Chains and because of that we ended up going straight back into Guardian with Terry overseeing the recording sessions again. I don’t think that was a great starting point although we had some new material some songs were tracks that hadn’t been a first choice for Steel n’ Chains. The approach that was taken to recording was much different too – much less of a live feel and lots of time was spent on the bass and drum tracks to the detriment of everything else – especially the vocals. I recall that I did most of the vocals for the second album in a very short space of time and recording a number of vocal tracks for different songs back to back and repeatedly to the extent that my voice started to break under the strain. That’s why I sound so raspy on some of those recordings. Whilst we had some fun times during those sessions they were equally marred by disagreements about the recording process and how we wanted to sound. I don’t think the band had any control over what was going down and certainly we didn’t have any involvement at the point of mixing. Some of the tracks were extended by repeating vocal passages and lead breaks and that was done without our knowledge and approval. The second self-titled album was released by Roadrunner in 1984 and no disrespect to anyone but I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t think any of the band were’.

‘When we reformed in 2009 the object of the exercise was to record an album that set the record straight. An album that was truly representative of what we were capable of. In order to achieve that we really had to assume total control of everything and that is why Neil invested in his home studio and took on the huge responsibility of engineering and producing the Behind Closed Eyes album. We recorded Behind Closed Eyes at Neil’s studio. He engineered, produced and mixed it. It was no small accomplishment. He really had to learn everything along the way and still play the role of being the main songwriter with myself, and having to play all of the guitar parts. I think that album is the best that it could possibly have been given the tools at our disposal and I’m very proud of it. The object of the exercise was always to show that we were a far better band than that second album and I think that without doubt we met that objective’. 

‘With the Hell To Pay (2018) album it was pretty much the same philosophy. We wanted it to be even better than Behind Closed Eyes. In fact we wanted it to be much better and that was going to be quite some task. People occasionally ask why it took from 2010 until 2018 to get the Hell To Pay album done. Well there were lots of reasons for that. Firstly we wanted to build the bands reputation on the live circuit at home and abroad and that was our priority. Secondly, although we started recording as far back as 2013 we weren’t satisfied with how the recordings were sounding so we decided to start afresh. Neil then became ill and was hospitalised for a time. We then had to work the song writing and recording sessions around the gigs and festivals to keep our profile up and juggle the usual family and work commitments. In actual fact it didn’t take a long time to do the album – probably about 18 months – but that was scattered throughout a five year period of gigging and dealing with our individual life things. Neil is always the first to say that he’s not an engineer or producer and he finds having that responsibility very hard. He’s extremely self-critical and he can be very set on what he wants in a performance from us. That, not unnaturally, can make things tough in the studio but the guy is very talented and when it comes to arrangements and his vision of how Spartan Warrior should sound he’s not often far off the mark. He deserves such a huge amount of respect because if it wasn’t for him there’d be no Behind Closed Eyes, there’d be no Hell To Pay and there’d be no Spartan Warrior’. 

Have you recorded any TV appearances or filmed any music videos ? ’When we signed to Roadrunner we were due to appear on ECT. A live rock music tv progamme on Channel 4. But by the time that came round I had handed my notice in. That must have been summer 1985. I believe they got another Roadrunner artist to appear…Lee Aaron. We’ve deliberately steered away from the music video thing so far. It’s something that rears its head every now and again but quite frankly video is a promotional tool and these days it’s a pale shadow of its former self. You can very easily post pro shot live footage from a festival and reach a wide audience using You Tube and social media. By the same token people can access promotional audio through the likes of You Tube, Spotify and a range of other digital media’.

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Have you any stories from playing gigs ? ‘Recently we played a show in Belgium and we had a classic situation of a Belgian guy having designs on one of the girls at the gig – sort of one of those situations we were told where they weren’t a couple although in his head they were going to be. At the time everyone except one of the Spartan Warrior guys were in relationships and this girl kept coming over asking for guitar picks, drum sticks and for stuff to be signed. All of which we were very happy to do while telling our ‘singleton’ that he needed to go and buy the girl a drink, chat her up and get it on. Little did we know that the Belgian guy was becoming increasingly jealous. The final straw came when she wandered across again and asked for her breasts to be signed. Well that’s no problem and first – and last – up was Tim Morton. But as he started to sign her boobs the would be boyfriend ran across, grabbed her from behind, picked her up and carried her backwards across the bar. Obviously Tim can’t finish signing her breasts but he did manage to drag his marker pen right across one tit, down her cleavage and across the front of her t shirt. We’re just falling about at this point and we can see the two of them arguing like hell outside the venue. Five minutes later the bloke walks right up to us with a face like a smacked arse. Naturally we’re thinking this is going to turn into Fight Club any second now. But instead the guy simply says “I have no problem with you, but signing her tits was a step too far… may I have a drum stick to give her”. Drum stick given. Ruck avoided. International relations restored. You see folks we do this sort of stuff so you don’t have to’.

What are the present and future plans for Spartan Warrior ? ’Well, the Hell To Pay album was released in February this year by Pure Steel Records who have bases in Germany and the USA. The reviews have been absolutely incredible. There will also be a vinyl release of that album on 22nd June so that’s something to look forward to. Over the last three or four years both fans and the industry have shown a big interest in a re-release of the Steel n’ Chains album. Our label, Pure Steel, are interested in doing something quite special in terms of that. It’s just a question of whether or not Pure Steel are able to take whatever steps they need to take to make it happen. But a re-release would be pretty cool as this year would be its 35th anniversary. We’d certainly like to get out on the road again. We will be doing a headline show on Saturday 2nd June at Newcastle Trillians and aim to play a lot of material from the new album so that’s very exciting. Trillians is a great venue and the Newcastle crowd are absolutely fantastic, it’s going to be a really good gig – as always. In November we’re on the bill of the Firestorm Rocks festival in Scotland with Praying Mantis, Holocaust, Dare, Air Race and more great bands. There are other shows in the pipeline but obviously I can’t announce them until the promoter/organiser does. At some point we will need to start the writing process for the next album – that’s definitely on our radar. One way or the other we’ve got a lot of great things to look forward to!

Interview by Gary Alikivi May 2018.

Recommended:

SPARTAN WARRIOR: Chain Raction,  21st May 2017.

SPARTAN WARRIOR: Invader from the North, 21st September 2017.