by Niklas Göransson
“White Horse Hill”, the third album of UK metal legends Solstice, is finally upon us – twenty years after its predecessor. The band’s spirited leader, founder, and guitarist Rich Walker declares his intention of perpetual defiance and no surrender.
– It’s definitely satisfying to finally see the new album completed, but the convoluted process that involved us recording it ended up being the most frustrating studio undertaking I’ve ever been a part of. A myriad of problems manifested themselves, ranging from the trivial to some which nearly resulted in the whole album being scrapped. Still it remains fresh in my mind – the horror of dealing with someone who’s supposed to be doing a job and paying attention, seeing as how we in the band were paying for the studio time, only to have the individual in question busy posting on fucking Facebook rather than tending to the session. One thing that sticks in my mind was Andy (Whittaker, guitars) apologising to me for the lack of progress on day five of the initial tracking. But he had no need to, for the fault was not his.
Rich explains that the whole affair has been a steep learning curve.
– I don’t particularly get on with the digital tracking process, I’m much better suited to recording straight to tape with a minimum of overdubs and the like. I say that but it could also be the fact that people who prefer the digital route tend to have a curious work-ethic of recording as many takes as possible rather than getting it right from the start – this seems to be standard practice these days. In that respect, the lesson learned was that we need to practice more as a band. I also need to quench my urges of changing things around up until the last minute… or maybe not, it simply wouldn’t be a SOLSTICE recording if I didn’t fuck with something at the very end.
It’s been implied in previous interviews that Rich rarely rushes anything related to his music. Vocalist Paul Kearns noted in our 2016 conversation that the headstrong guitarist is likely ’the most meticulous bloke’ he’s ever encountered in a band situation.
– Paul is right. It’s like the worst possible OCD you can imagine. I sit there, listening to a demo or rough mix and suddenly new ideas start formulating in my mind. I realise it must drive the others to the point of wanting to murder me every time we go into the studio but imagine what it’s like for me! It almost brings me to the point of tears every time because I’m struggling to articulate musically what’s going on in my head. Maybe if I was a professionally trained guitar-virtuoso born to a privileged background instead of some thick working-class kid from a council house I might have some more success – or respect – in what I do. Still, I get great pleasure from things finally coming together and being able to listen to the end result.
Rich explains that despite his unorthodox inclinations, their creative process is pretty much the same as any other band.
– I first compose sections of music which we then learn as a band, trying out different drum patterns and tempos to see what works best. Through the subsequent months we’ll continue building the song by trying out as many variations as possible. This works for me; you can never be certain what you might stumble upon as a ’happy accident’ when done this way rather than writing everything at home, taking it to rehearsal and saying, ’It’s got to be like this!’ I give Paul a song title and thematic concept and he scurries off to write some lyrics. Finally, Andy will compose the ’big’ main solo with as much empathy for the song as he can muster. And when it’s all complete, then – and only then – will I decide to change something around just to annoy them all, haha!
Do you fancy yourself ‘old-school’?
– Fuck, I hate that term! I’d rather call us musical Luddites who reject to the greatest possible extent these modern methods of writing and recording. Myself and Andy firmly believe that demos must be made and new songs introduced into the live set as soon as possible, so they have a chance to evolve and mutate and allow us to become more comfortable with the material. Whether the audience is familiar with them or not doesn’t matter. These days, far too much emphasis is placed on a slick final product and its sanitised feel. Of course, there’s another approach where one writes most of the album in-studio but that’s just fucking wrong! Still, I admire the approach of say, Tom from WHILE HEAVEN WEPT – where they’ll rehearse their material, not demo it at all and just go record and spend months and months in the studio honing it to perfection. In that respect we share the common objective of meticulousness, just a different way of going about it. No one can doubt the quality of Tom’s recordings, or his dedication to the art.
He adds that if one has no intentions of being meticulous when composing music, one ‘might as well just fuck off’.
– There’s an ever-growing scene, particularly in the English doom metal sub-genre, in which people seem content to trade off past history; throw a few knackered BLACK SABBATH and CANDLEMASS riffs together with comical lyrics about wizards in doomy woodland happenings at midnight or some shit. And at the same time wearing cut-offs complete with brand-new BLACK SABBATH patches, or some mail-order Matrix-style goth gear and a few Iommi-sized crucifixes. I can only laugh at these bands. It’s not a way of life for them, but rather an attempt of establishing their careers in music and getting free holidays abroad by playing to three hippies and a handful of metalheads at the 70,000 ’doom festivals’ around Europe. Seen it all before – it’s shite.
Rich says doing things right or not doing them at all is the key to authenticity; one must take pride in one’s music or run the risk of coming across as a career opportunist or band-wagon jumper.
– Perhaps I’m missing something here but in the eighties we went, and still do, hell-bent for leather to do things the ’right way’. I have no time or money to waste on bands who come across as half-arsed by selling logo-branded cigarette lighters or asking their social media fanbase what their next album should be about lyrically. What I’m constantly looking for is the sequence of notes that feels ‘right’ when put together with a percussive rhythm – seeking that eureka moment when it all clicks and falls into place… but can there be anything more exhausting than not being able to sleep at 3am because you have an idea for a riff or melody? And you climb out of bed and hurry to record it, lest you lose it forever. It really is something pure and magical to not only move yourself, but also others with what you create.
In the band’s present embodiment, he proclaims, they wanted to move slightly left-field to where they’d gone before in terms of composition, yet still maintain a sense of continuity.
– This is why “White Horse Hill” has less of the palm-muting, bigger open chords, and guitar layering. Muting under the solos instead of throughout verses makes it feel tighter and gives the lead breaks a chance to shine through. We changed around a lot of things from how they used to be done. There was a real and honest approach in that we felt neither need nor urge to repeat what had gone before. Definitely much less of the obvious folky ‘hey-nonny-no’ elements better suited to the sub-sub genre of Celtic folk metal. Without at least trying to evolve we’d have been cheating not only ourselves out of an opportunity to occupy an even more obscure niche on the periodic table of heavy metals, but also the people who buy our records and come see us play. Why become a tribute act to yourself?
Rich says that judging from the complaints he’s read online, the shift from his own dark and cryptic lyrics to Paul’s deeper, more oral folk-style has upset some.
– The way I see it, I’m not the one singing them. I actually find Pauls‘ approach preferable, his lyrics are just as meaningful and well thought-out and suit us better in the current incarnation. Mind you, I’ve read complaints about the music too – proving that whatever we do, it’s always going to upset and confuse some people. Ultimately, what we put to tape is dictated by our choice as a band and as the music’s originators; not by critics spouting off into the digital void. I remember only too well the written drubbings we received at the time of each album release, and that every record mainly got slated by reviewers. With the exception of a tiny minority of writers who appreciate what we do, I see no reason that will change.
He mentions how another fresh approach for “White Horse Hill” was the increased emphasis on quality song-writing rather than simply throwing a sequence of good riffs together, as has been the case in the past.
– With Paul on vocals, it certainly helped that we finally had someone who could convey the feeling in the lyrics. We also factored in that we have a different and much more competent main lead player in Andy, giving us a lot more options melodically. One of the more curious things, though, was when I played the promo twelve-inch on 33rpm rather than the 45rpm it was cut on, I could hear perfectly everything I had in mind musically or that had inspired me, haha!
So what did influence you, musically?
– I stated in an old interview from… Isten, I think, that the metal benchmarks we adhered to were BATHORY, CANDLEMASS, MAIDEN, old MANOWAR and CELTIC FROST. It pretty much stands the same but with the exception that I threw in elements of an early-teen favourite – the mid-period of ADAM & THE ANTS, “Kings of the Wild Frontier”. Marco Pirroni was an amazing and underrated song-writer, as was the band as a whole in my opinion… imagine their style played with really heavy guitars and you’d have some of the most undoubtedly epic and heartfelt music ever committed to vinyl. It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate how great they were. Not to everyone’s taste, I know, but then again nor are the hints of FOTHERINGAY or STEELEYE SPAN.
In February 2018, as soon as the mix and mastering had been completed, the band released “White Horse Hill” on Bandcamp.
– This way we can get some returns on the initial money we’ve spent and generate interest in the physical release. So far, it’s done really well and we’re surprised at the amount of downloads it got. As for the physical releases, I just felt the time was right to make licensing deals for each format in different territories. I’d grown tired of packing hundreds of orders, endless trips to the post office, and dealing with enquiries via email. It’s a lot of work, and that’s time I’d rather spend writing new songs or something else related to the band.
The new album will be available in all the usual formats later in 2018 – for the European market, Invictus Productions are releasing the CD and tape version whereas Iron Bonehead will handle vinyl. Dark Descent will publish both formats in North America.
– The most humorous courting came from a large, well-known label based in Germany and the US. They offered us an advance of two thousand pounds to record the album, which we could pay them back via royalties and – as shit-icing on the turd cake – they’d own the rights. Ultimately, we went with labels we felt were on the same page as us and could do the best job. All three are both well-established and growing, but we stick out like a sore thumb musically amongst their other bands. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing at all. DIY and licensing is the only way forward for bands like us. So, in short, I’m happy with the result of this type of working relationship we have now. We don’t sign contracts any longer, just make a gentleman’s agreement with labels we can trust and then pay for the recordings and artwork ourselves. That way we retain all the rights and are free to do as we wish, when we fucking want to.
Now that you’ve reached a point where you’re able to do this, are there any feelings of having ‘made it’ as a band?
– Made it to what? To where? That expression implies that you’re not making music for the pleasure of creating art but rather that you’ve now finally attained sufficient worthiness to share backstage-seating areas with random celebrities. I simply don’t get it. My whole reason for playing is the love I have of this style. Regardless of what anyone thought, I’d still be on the same path – putting out tapes and giving them away. However, it must be said we realise how lucky we are to have offers from multiple labels and that our sales are healthy enough to allow us a choice and make the best possible releases not only musically, but visually as well. I mean, what other band can you think of as being passionate enough to press up and hand-make two-hundred vinyl and mail them out for free worldwide? Not as a publicity stunt but because we genuinely appreciate the support we receive. It speaks volumes to me that these are all in the hands of people we gifted copies to.
Rich is referring to the 2016 demo LP “To Sol a Thane” which was printed in limited edition and then given to friends and supporters. Considering his renowned distaste for internet culture, I’m curious how Richard takes to his role as SOLSTICE’s resident social media and online marketing manager.
– I personally find it bizarre, posting links on Facebook to every review your band has had – it’s almost as if you’ve got nothing better to do or are nothing more than an attention-seeking child. We operate under a kind of self-enforced policy of posting publicly only when we think we’ve got something of interest or worthwhile to say. The positive reactions are great, thanks for that, and we appreciate them more than people could ever realise but it’s not the reason we play in a band. The negative reactions are comical, mostly from people who simply don’t get what we’re doing or – in the worst-case scenario – by someone with a score to settle.
But surely reviews help sales?
– I’m sure they help sell more records but I personally don’t need to read any reviews in order to check out a band. Usually, a quick look at the artwork and song titles will be quite enough for me to investigate further if I am so inclined. If I already like a band, I’m going to check out their latest recording regardless of what the critics have to say. One band that caught my eye and interest was WARRYOR from the USA, now known as BLACK TORA. Their demo from 2007 was the perfect mix of PRIEST and SABBATH with DIO; song-writing perfection and lead breaks to die for – such a great band!
SOLSTICE on tour during the nineties used to be known as somewhat of a roving riot. I’m curious how Rich finds life on the road now at a slightly more ripened age.
– I admit we’ve toned it down a bit with the beer drinking – not much though, but with advancing age comes other responsibilities such as children of our own and looking after one’s health. But trust me, judging by some of the cruel pranks we still get up to when drinking and gigging, the spirit won’t ever die. Never surrender, as we are fond of saying. It’s with no small sense of pride we can lay claim to having been the last men standing in the Metal Magic festival bar. When we staggered back to the hotel at 9am, we were meeting bands who’d already been to bed. In fact, as we were bundled onto a bus to take ourselves and the festival-goers back to the airport, myself and Andy decided in our inebriated state to seize control of the vehicle. As he got behind the wheel to start the engine, I grabbed the microphone and started telling off-colour politically incorrect jokes to a bus-load of non-English speakers. Naturally, the driver and his co-worker who stood outside smoking were quite astonished to suddenly hear the engine revving and a torrent of obscenities flooding from the bus loudspeaker system. Shortly thereafter we were manhandled off the bus and only allowed back on if we sat apart, like naughty schoolboys.
Rich says it’s moments like these which provide some of the best memories, childish pranks that are immensely funny when one has had more than one’s fair share of drink.
– Another that springs to mind was at the Hell’s Pleasure festival a few years ago. Some guy had passed out in one of the portable toilets backstage. Ever the upstanding citizen, in an effort to help this poor fellow out and bring him ‘round, I pushed the whole thing over. The resulting torrent of shit and piss and blood-curdling screams as he was washed out of the door in a faecal tsunami brought tears of joy to my eyes. Even that pales in comparison to Andy stealing an elderly man in a wheelchair at an Italian airport. The resulting fracas as he drunkenly raced past the armed airport police, swigging from a bottle of whiskey and pushing the wheelchair as fast as he could down a sloped concourse before letting go, was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Certainly, the old fellow could have been seriously injured – as could Andy he was that drunk – but the momentary adrenalin rush of misbehaving in public outweighed any possible dangers. Simply put, we don’t intend to ever lose this juvenile sense of humour, the ability to revel in opportunities of making ourselves laugh by doing something fucked up is probably the best medicine against the diseases that are complacency and mediocrity.
Are you still enforcing your Taliban volume standards?
– Well, as we all know, ’Taliban’ translates as ’scholar’. Is it possible to have a ‘scholarly volume level’? I think it was only last year I decided we wouldn’t be taking up a return engagement at a particular venue because the sound engineer was a fucking wimp. ’Turn it down, turn it down or you’re not playing!’ he cried. ’Fuck off, you soft bastard!’ we replied. It was like a heavy metal concert mistaken for some sort of lavender convention. I felt cheated and I felt as if I was cheating the audience. Wanting things to be polite and safe is doing it wrong; I don’t give a fuck about hearing loss. It’s almost a rite of passage everyone should be going through, every time without fail. If you don’t wake up the next morning with your head throbbing from the ear-splitting volume and heaviness and your mouth tasting like a vagrant has been sleeping in it, then something wasn’t right or you were at the wrong gig.
You have reached the end of the first part of this conversation. The second, which is an epic journey through the band’s tumultuous past, will be featured in Bardo Methodology #4.