Fireworks

Fireworks Magazine Online 83: Interview with Stormzone

STORMZONE

Interview by Bruce Mee

Northern Ireland's premier Heavy Metal band Stormzone have just released their seventh studio album, the wonderful 'Lucifer's Factory', featuring a collection of songs based on Irish myths and legends. Fireworks caught up with mainman John 'Harv' Harbinson to get the details...


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My only previous exposure to Stormzone was your debut album, and when you played at our Firefest Festival back in 2007. I remember enjoying the Melodic Hard Rock you played back then, so it was a bit eye-opening hearing the more Melodic Metal of 'Lucifer's Factory'. I guess you've been recording in this style for quite a few albums, so how do you see the band's musical evolution from the debut to today?


Firefest was a wonderful experience for Stormzone, Bruce. I remember meeting you during the course of that excellent weekend! We were quite nervous before our appearance as the band with that Firefest line-up had only been together for a matter of months. The first Stormzone album, 'Caught in the Act', had been released earlier that year through Escape Music and it was an album featuring mainly Hard Rock songs which is why our Firefest show had that Melodic Rock feel to it. That was because initially 'CITA' was really only meant to be a John 'Harv' Harbinson solo album! Stormzone wasn't actually in existence when I was recording it, the musicians on the album are all great session musicians — although guitarist Keith Harris eventually became the Stormzone guitarist — and I financed the album myself, due in part to having been in a Whitesnake tribute band at that time and Davy Warren had asked us if we would support Danger Danger.

I didn't want to play covers while supporting such a prolific act and I asked the Whitesnake tribute guys to learn a set of original material that I had written while in an earlier band called Emerald. The Danger Danger show was a massive hit and Kieran Dargan actually encouraged us to go back on for an encore ̶ unheard of for a support band. That's when I decided to record the songs we had played that night; it really wasn't intended for release as I didn't have a record company involved. But then when the album was finished it found its way into the hands of Khalil Turk and he right away said he wanted to release it! It was actually Khalil who came up with the band's name as it was better being released that way rather than as a solo album. So Stormzone was created and 'Caught In The Act' was released in January 2007. Kieran then asked me if I'd be interested in re-creating the Danger Danger support at Firefest later that year and that's when the panic set in haha, as I had to turn Stormzone into an actual band! I had been keeping myself in shape by rehearsing with an Iron Maiden tribute band at that time, and I had become extremely fond of the musicians in that band.

So I asked them if they could put the Iron Maiden tribute on the back-burner for a while so that we could concentrate of some shows, including Firefest. That's when Stormzone as a band was actually born. We played some local shows as warm up for Firefest and then performed at the festival itself. Circumstances during the Firefest weekend dictated that there was a guarantee of some exceptionally interesting shows in the near future, so the Iron Maiden tribute was laid to rest permanently and Stormzone became everyone's main focus. The Firefest line-up also then dictated the way future recordings would take shape as the line-up, featuring now guys who were a little heavier in their personal tastes for music, was actually going to be jointly contributing to song-writing and I no longer had to rely on a back-catalogue of older and already written material for future albums. But we had been spotted by Spanish promoter Robert Mills at Firefest. He was bringing George Lynch to Europe for a series of solo shows and realised at that moment, having watched us perform, that George didn't have to solely perform guitar instrumentals to backing tracks ̶ here was a band who could provide him with the backing to be able to play a full show of Dokken and Lynch Mob songs!

Yes indeed, I never realized you were George Lynch's backing band for that Spanish tour. How was that experience, and how was George to work with?

We actually started the tour off in London. George arrived at the Camden Underworld while we were sound checking. He hadn't been in contact with the band or had even heard of us, but when he walked in through the door, there we were performing 'Breaking The Chains' and that must have been an eye-opener for him! It was a really unique tour as we had to go on as Stormzone to play the support show and then come off stage, get quickly changed and venture out a whole new entity as (as George referred to us as) his 'European Lynch Mob'. What an honour! It did lift Stormzone to a whole new level of confidence and that boded well for big shows we had ahead, meaning we wouldn't feel just as nervous as we did walking onto the Firefest stage. Here we were with an absolute legend standing amidst our ranks playing Dokken and Lynch Mob classics; it was both unreal and surreal. The funny thing was George had no idea that we had been rehearsing the show for a month or so before embarking on the tour, so he was still under the impression that he still had to perform an instrumental set with backing tracks and under the impression that we would just be backing him for a song or two. I think he was asleep during our London support so he still didn't see we meant business, and he played for 45 minutes or so to a CD before we joined him for what he thought were the last couple of songs ̶ an hour later we were still playing all the hits!

George really enjoyed himself, we were flying to Barcelona next day and the great man said he wanted to talk to us when we got there. At the hotel when we arrived George organised a meeting and basically said that he was going to ditch the whole guitar clinic to backing tracks angle of his tour and he wanted to then work out a touring set that would be consistent during the shows ahead. That was absolutely awesome because it took away any uncertainty and it made the tour far more appealing and exciting. We continued to support ourselves each night and then returned to the stage each evening much more confident of being able to deliver the goods. I kind of felt sorry for the guys though because there were a couple of instrumentals in the set and while I could stand side-stage and take a breather the rest of the band had to knuckle down to George's insistence on playing the instrumentals four times longer than the originals, so it was one hell of a work out for the boys. And yes, it was truly awesome each night when George continued to introduce us onstage as his European Lynch Mob!

I hear so much Classic Metal references in the new album, from the Maiden flavoured opener 'Dark Hedges', through the Judas Priest infused 'Last Night In Hell' and the bombastic Manowar feel of 'In For The Kill'. You played in an Iron Maiden tribute band in the early days, so is this just your influences shining through?

Well I hope that when people listen to us they'll know that they're listening to Stormzone. We do definitely sound at times like the bands you mention through influence, but we're honestly not deliberately trying to be another Iron Maiden or Judas Priest. Our aim is to keep the music alive that great bands such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden made so popular all over the world. They will hopefully be around for a long time more, but when they decide to call it quits then it shouldn't mean that a great style of Metal should be confined to the history books. I don't think we actually originally set out to sound like our influences, but I guess if we do then it would be a natural thing. I'm personally a big fan of Helloween, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Hammerfall, Edguy and UDO etc, and it just so happens that the other guys in Stormzone love the same bands and obviously there will be hints of those influential bands running through our sound.

Our last album 'Seven Sins', as well as those released before it, with the exception of 'Caught In The Act', was compared at times to those famous bands you mention, so with 'Lucifer's Factory' we were aware of those reviews and agreed that we had to be careful not to be classed as, for example, Iron Maiden clones. When the album was finished we all agreed that this is probably our strongest release to date, and reviewers have thankfully been agreeing with us, but the real difference this time is that reviewers are now focusing on a Stormzone sound and mentioning less and less the bands who influenced our earlier releases!! We honestly write freely now without even thinking about those great bands. We still seem to end up with hints of them in our sound. I don't really mind though, they are great bands to be compared to and it would be awesome to get to the levels they've reached!

How does the song-writing process work in Stormzone?

Well to tell you the truth, the main thing is we really never stop writing, it's never a case of having time away from writing songs and then saying right, it's time to create what's necessary for a new album. So the songs on 'Lucifer's Factory' would have been the continuation of writing after we recorded 'Seven Sins' and really there is never any real plan to change direction or become more progressive. So technically from the moment 'Lucifer's Factory' was recorded we began working on what will be the next Stormzone album! The songs on 'Lucifer's Factory' just managed to capture a song-writing period that happened to produce a consistency that maybe sounded like we had deliberately tried to have an album with a slightly different direction than those before it, but that honestly wasn't the case. The song writing process is always the same; it starts with an individual member of the band having an initial musical idea and that idea is brought to the rest of us in bassist Graham's studio. The guys then sit down and work on the music, developing a riff further into a structure that becomes intro, verse, chorus.

Then the following night they'll go to guitarist Steve's Firemachine Studio ̶ where all our albums are finally recorded and produced ̶ and they'll record what has been worked on at the previous night's writing session with the end product being a finished track without vocals. Steve will email me the song that night and next day in my own studio I'll write and record the vocals, add backing vocals and email the song to the guys afterwards, usually same day. That part of our writing and recording process usually takes around 3 days to complete. The next thing is obviously to live with the song for a while and suggest changes, maybe to verse lengths, maybe a bridge needs added or something. That all gets noted, generally these days via Facebook messenger, and the following night the whole process starts all over again. It might be that we have shows that we have to rehearse for and writing will stop for a week or two as we concentrate on a set for concerts, but no matter how long the gap is between writing sessions the next song starts off being created in exactly the same way as the previous one and a consistency is hopefully maintained.

There may have been a slightly longer gap than usual between the writing of 'Seven Sins' and 'Lucifer's Factory' as we had the personnel change with David Bates leaving the drum stool and Jonathan Millar's arrival, and that may have contributed to a slightly different overall feel to many of the songs on 'Lucifer's Factory', but our objective is always to try to maintain a unique Stormzone sound even if there are a few twists and turns in direction. It would probably be too predictable for us to just create a 'Lucifer's Factory Part II' right away, it will happen at some point but whether or not the next album is going to be a continuation of us studying our Northern Ireland mythology and folklore, which all the songs on the new album are based on, we'll just have to wait and see!

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As you say, the new album is based on Irish Myths and legends. Whose idea was that and how difficult was it to come up with 13 such stories – and which are your favourites?

The guys are generally happy to leave me to it when it comes to what is going to be the main inspiration for a new collection of songs for an album. I was also going to be responsible for designing and painting the album cover so it actually came about that I had to concentrate on a combination of thinking about themes for the songs that would make their way onto the 'Lucifer's Factory' CD and then also contemplating how the cover artwork would develop. It actually transpired that one would help the other and I was able to dip into work that I had done a few years ago as inspiration for both. I have always been interested in the myths and legends of Northern Ireland, not really the established ones but the hidden folklore which is really only talked about in regions and not tremendously famous. A Spanish author was writing a book on the subject as part of a 'guide for Spanish tourists' who she wanted to ensure would go off the beaten tracks in an effort to find hidden gems.

So her research and the things that she discovered really intrigued me and it astonished me that we here in Northern Ireland have so many superb tales to tell of things that, to many, would seem very surprising and enlightening. You will find these tales on the new Stormzone album, amongst them being the legend of 'Albhartach', a vampire who lived in the North West of Northern Ireland and terrorised villages during his lifetime. This was well before Dracula became the famous face of vampirism and Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, has gone on record as having been originally influenced by the story of Albhartach. 'Hallows Eve' is the origin of Halloween, right here in Northern Ireland where in medieval times people would scatter ashes on the slate floor of their living room in front of the fire place. While the families were sleeping Jack O'Lantern would visit, and in the morning if the footprints he left in the ashes pointed towards the door then all was going to be well for this family, but if they pointed towards the fire, they were going to experience death in a short time! That's the origin of Halloween right there, not some 'trick or treat' party that was hijacked by the USA! Other tales on the album include 'Cushy Glen', the tale of the highwayman who ambushed men on their way home from the pub and attacking the drunk men he would cut their throats, rob them and bury them in an opened grave in the local graveyard.

Next day when the funeral of the grave owner was taking place he would be amongst the mourners watching as the coffin was laid down on top of the soil covered body of his previous night's victim! So I was able to gain lots of inspiration for the songs on the new album and that was helped by the fact that I had, by then, great experience of the tales because I had read them and done the artwork which accompanied each story in the Spanish book! It was natural then that the album cover would develop from the same source, and although the album is called 'Lucifer's Factory' the painting is inspired by a 'gateway to Hell' described in the song 'The Heaven You Despise' in which Lucifer is exiled from Heaven and seeks sanctuary on earth by creating an entrance to his new domain, and it really exists as a place called Dundermot Mound just outside the city of Ballymena in Northern Ireland. Considering Northern Ireland is a small country with just a total population of 1.6 million and we are surrounded by such an intense wealth of myth, mystery and legend it really is a place to be fully inspired and influenced. Plus we have Guinness and Bushmills Whisky, and we know they're legendary and really exist!!

Is there a book or website you could recommend to fans who wanted to read up more on the backgrounds of these wonderful tales?

A good friend of mine, Rock journalist Jonathan Traynor, recommended Jonathan Bardon's 'History of Ulster' and this proved to be an invaluable source when it came to writing the lyrics for the songs on 'Lucifer's Factory'. I didn't want to veer away from absolute facts or have an expert chastising me for inaccuracy, and when I'm talking about experts I really mean the people close to the myths and legendary characters that I chose to write about. This was also important when it came to that other contribution I made to the album, which was the painting of the cover!

The Jonathan Bardon book would be highly influential with my choice of themes for the songs that would make their way onto the 'Lucifer's Factory' album and also in contemplating how the cover artwork would develop, and it actually transpired that one would help out the other and I was able to dip into work that I had done a few years ago as inspiration for the songs as well as the artwork.

This is your third album for Metal Nation, so things must be working well as a partnership?

Absolutely, and our relationship with Jess goes way before we ever thought we'd be signing to him and Metal Nation Records. The highly respected and regarded ex-Tygers Of Pan Tang singer came to see us play in Newcastle, England, when we supported Tesla there in the O2 Academy way back in 2008. He had been head of Neat Records, the label that encouraged Sweet Savage to reunite and our previous drummer Davy Bates, who was in Sweet Savage back then, remained friends with Jess when that partnership split after two albums. Jess stayed after the Tesla show, we had a drink together and he expressed an interest in helping the band out. Shortly afterwards we had recorded our second album, 'Death Dealer', and quickly realised that the more straight Metal approach to this album would not have suited it's release on Escape Music, the company who released our first more melodic debut album.

SPV had expressed an interest in signing us after one of their representatives had seen us at Sweden Rock, but we had contractual obligations to Escape Music and couldn't sign to SPV right away. We were out of our depth and desperate to sign to the German label and Jess took the bull by the horns and negotiated a settlement between the labels which allowed us to be free to leave Escape Music and release Death Dealer through SPV. We just could not have done that on our own, and we were grateful to Jess for sorting everything out for us. At that moment we quickly decided that we needed a manager who could deal with these kinds of situations, and Jess seemed the obvious choice. We signed a management contract with him and we went on to do some great shows as a result, including Wacken, and Jess also negotiated the release of our third album, 'Zero To Rage' through SPV. Our management contracts ran in tandem with our SPV contracts and both 3 year terms came to an end at the beginning of 2013. We knew we were going to have 'Three Kings' recorded and ready for release that year but with SPV going through another insolvency situation it wasn't clear as to whether they would be ideal to keep waiting for in order to release 'Three Kings'.

We met up with Jess at the Metal Assault festival in Germany that February. He spent the weekend with us and we realised that we didn't need to wait on anyone at all. Jess was head of Metal Nation Records, he had contacts all over the world and he knew everything there was to know about Heavy Metal, so we decided that there was only one label going to release Three Kings and that was Metal Nation. Here we are another five years later and he's lived up to all his promises and our new album 'Lucifer's Factory' is now also available on Metal Nation!
We have definitely benefitted from being signed to Metal Nation Records because Jess Cox never puts the band under pressure to meet deadlines. The great thing is we have always had albums written and recorded well ahead of schedule and that is definitely as a result of our great fortune in having the ability to record in our guitarist Steve's FireMachine studio during the time-frames which suit each member of the band and of course with Steve also being our producer and guitarist we therefore have that as a massive advantage. The only pressure we really feel is the pressure we put on ourselves to continually create great music, but that is a very satisfying self-inflicted pressure and it is never affected by time.

The band has done many live shows and festivals promoting previous releases, so are there any plans settled yet to get out and play 'Lucifer's Factory' to the fans?

We definitely have aspirations to do an extensive UK tour in support of 'Lucifer's Factory' as well as venturing over to Europe to play shows there organised by our manager, Eddy 'Rocks' Freiberger. It's really as difficult as the amount of finance that can be put into doing a tour in more ways than one. It's an unfortunate fact these days that a lot of the bigger bands ask support bands for money if they want to tour with them. Recently a well known act contacted us to ask if we would be interested in doing a series of 18 shows around Europe, but pointed out that if we were to come on board there would be a 500 Euro fee, each night!! So we would have had to have covered our own travelling expenses and accommodation for almost three weeks as well as paying a staggering 9000 Euros!

That, of course, is not just a difficulty faced by us, there are thousands of bands out there and very few opportunities. Also most festivals and tours are in the hands of promoters and agencies. A single agency can provide many bands for one festival and if you're not part of that agency you stand very little chance of getting an invite to play. We have been fortunate enough, without having to resort to paying, to have played some fantastic festivals and toured with a lot of great bands who haven't demanded anything from us. This year has been no exception and to tell you the truth, with writing and recording 'Lucifer's Factory' we were expecting to be doing very little live work in 2018. But already this year we have played quite a few shows here in Ireland including the support shows with Inglorious, Warrior Soul, Anvil, Diamond Head and Y&T. The rest of the year is becoming even more productive as we are going to be touring Spain in September, organised by Kivents there, and although it's some way off we have been confirmed for the Icerock Festival in Switzerland in January. The increase in live action coincides with our involvement with Eddy 'Rocks' Freiberger, he is responsible for everything we are now doing with regards to tours and festivals and I know we will be doing much more on the road in 2018 for sure.

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