Iron Bonehead Productions
by Niklas Göransson
A step into the darkness – German label manager Patrick Kremer speaks of a long journey through the metal underground, as well as the creation of his life’s work: Iron Bonehead Productions.
– My hometown, Fulda, was certainly no metropolis; it must’ve had no more than 60,000 residents back in the 90s. However, the town is located right in the middle of Germany, so we did quite a bit of weekend travelling to see shows or meet up with like-minded folks. Bigger cities like Frankfurt am Main is only forty-five minutes by train – Würzburg, Kassel, Nuremberg, Merkers, and Gießen are all close-by cities where many metal concerts and parties took place in the 80s up until the 00s. We did have a couple of bigger bands stopping by Fulda, like MORBID ANGEL, MASSACRE, BOLT THROWER, SODOM, TANKARD, ASPHYX and so on. There were a few underground gigs at the local youth centre as well. If nothing major was going on, we’d just meet up, play music, and have some drinks. Considering the size of the city, the amount of metalheads was pretty high. You’d run into guys wearing metal shirts and jackets at school or in the city centre all the time. Not too many people were active in a band or other underground-related projects, but more solid music listeners.
Patrick was certainly one of the active residents. In 1991, at age thirteen, he founded a metal fanzine by the name Temple of Burial Place, with which he released two issues. The same year, he began playing death metal with a few friends; they called themselves BLOODY REVENGE and released a self-titled demo later the same year. The band was dissolved in ’92, whereupon Patrick, or Traumatic, took guitarist Mephistopheles with him and formed the more black metal-oriented project NEMA. Judging by the name, I’m guessing they’d gotten hold of the first ENSLAVED demo by then.
– Actually, no, I only found out about ENSLAVED at the time of their “Yggdrasill” demo. I founded NEMA with my school mate Christian – who some might remember from Mortuary Magazine and Slaughter Productions – and he was the one who came up with the band name. It was a simple expression of our anti-church attitude. For some reason I can’t even recall anymore, Christian left the band before we recorded our first demo, “A Step into the Darkness”. But since we had the logo drawn already, we agreed to keep the name even though the member who came up with it had left. Back then, it was Mephistopheles and I who first wrote the songs and then worked them out on guitar and drums. Towards the end of the band, it was Pendragon I put the material together with. Same goes for the lyrics, while I handled the snail-mail contact and demo distribution on my own. We were young of age and for sure not pro on our instruments, but whatever we did was done with full conviction.
One notable NEMA release was the 1996 split EP with MOONBLOOD on Unholy Baphomet Records.
– We were in close contact with the MOONBLOOD guys back in the day, tape-trading and also meeting each other on a regular basis. I’m still in touch with Gaamalzagoth, and that’s how the IBP re-issues happened.
NEMA was put to rest in 1998, the same year Patrick joined WITCHBURNER – a local thrash metal band who were in the process of recording the follow-up album to their self-titled 1996 debut.
– I knew the WITCHBURNER guys for many years prior to joining them, well before they even became a band in the first place. NEMA were in the middle of recording a mini-album for German Miriquidi Productions, but it all went nowhere somehow and I was suddenly free to focus on other projects; so, when WITCHBURNER lost their vocalist, I joined in his stead. The band was somehow ‘popular’, for sure. We played plenty of gigs, small tours, and festivals over the years and, as far as I remember, the album sales were good too – looking at several thousand copies. The ‘thrash revival’ was rising, with SODOM, DESTRUCTION, ASSASSIN, KREATOR, and TANKARD all coming back to the stage and raising far more interest than during the 90s when thrash metal was not so popular anymore.
I read that you left WITCHBURNER abruptly in 2005 – during the recording of “Final Detonation” – taking all of your lyrics with you?
– Well, I did not leave the band on good terms. At the end of the day, it’s not all that dramatic – only a bunch of guys having an argument they couldn’t resolve peacefully.
Meanwhile, Patrick had been gradually building his label, what’s now become his life’s work: Iron Bonehead Productions. But before IBP came into being, he’d been running a more modest operation.
– Obscure Art Productions was a cassette-only label, mainly focused on releasing bands from people I was already in touch with. The first tape was the 1995 demo of CHERUSKER, a raw one-man pagan black metal band, followed by “Winternacht” from Gaamalzagoth‘s side-project RAVENCLAW. Then I did a collaborative release with Sombre Records: the RAVENCLAW and NIGHTWOLF split tape. The last release before Obscure Arts changed name was the “Tiefenfinsternis” demo by KAIRHIA, a black metal band from the Fulda area. Some local support, so to speak.
After Iron Bonehead Productions had operated strictly as a distro for two years, its first label release was in 1997 – with TWISTED TOWER DIRE, of all bands. The very early IBP output was extremely varied in terms of genres: speed, thrash, black, death, doom, and heavy metal. Equally dispersed were the countries of origin, besides the domestic acts Patrick signed bands from Portugal, the US, Japan, Finland, and so forth.
– The first release was actually MAYHEMIC TRUTH’s “Live in Bernhausen” tape, which was another collaboration with Sombre Records. However, Marcel spread copies with his logo exclusively in the booklet, so many people didn’t even realise it was a split. But yes, the first IBP-only release was TWISTED TOWER DIRE. The guys were looking for a label to release a European version of their “Triumphing True Metal” demo; we’d been corresponding via snail mail for a while, so I agreed and we made it happen. Right from the start, I did not set any limitations for myself – my intention was to support bands I’m in touch with and whose music I enjoy on a private basis. Since I’d been active in the underground for a couple of years already at that point, the challenge was not so much finding bands to work with as it was bringing up the money needed to realise such projects, haha!
One project Patrick did fulfil was starting up a metal bar in his hometown.
– Domizil opened its doors in spring 2001 and remained in business until the summer of 2002. Beside local metalheads, we had many guests coming in from close-by cities; on weekends, there were often people I knew through the label, distro, or my band showing up. For example, we had Metalion from Slayer Mag, bands like ABIGAIL and CUTTHROAT, plus folks from Hellbangers, ISEN TORR, NOCTURNAL, and so on. We were open from Tuesday to Sunday, 5pm ‘til 1am on weekdays and open-end on weekends. Domizil was actually doing pretty well, until the change from Deutsche Mark to Euro. The currency transition killed the bar in no time; people were scared that their money suddenly wouldn’t be worth shit, but also feared the loss of jobs or whatever. This started in December 2001 already and lasted way longer than expected, even after people realised that things went on just as usual but with different coins in their pocket. Anyway, the bills were piling up and – despite taking on a second job at a warehouse during the day, then running the bar in the evening and night hours – in the end, it wasn’t possible to keep going without losing my ass. So, I got lucky and was able to end the rent contract early.
Patrick moved to Berlin in 2004; he was still in WITCHBURNER at the time, but not for much longer. Iron Bonehead remained active by churning out a handful of releases per year before stepping up the pace in 2008 with both an increased output and more full-length records, as opposed to cassettes and EPs.
– After the move, I ran my label as a side-business and worked a few different jobs to pay the bills. By 2007, Iron Bonehead had become my ‘main business’ and I’ve never gone back to regular employment since. I first worked from my apartment and its basement, and then, shortly thereafter, from a proper office. I can’t really say how things developed so quickly at one point, it just happened somehow. Perhaps because the distro was getting bigger. I’d also started setting up gigs.
One such gig was the Nuclear Gathering of the Legions of Doom in 2007. Boasting a line-up of NECROS CHRISTOS, SADOMATOR, GRAVE MIASMA, PROCLAMATON, BLASPHEMOPHAGHER, and BESTIAL RAIDS, this fest is historically relevant as the first of its kind: a billing consisting exclusively of death and black metal bands of the bestial strain.
– The time was right to make such a thing happen, showcasing some of the most important contemporary names of the genre. The harsher black and death scene was on one the rise again, and there were enough bands around to make such a night reality. For many years, there wasn’t sufficient interest to run such an exclusive event; you could have one or maybe two harsher bands on the bill, but also had to add acts from other subgenres to make a gig work and attract an audience. But a sold-out four hundred-capacity venue proved that I did just right here, and it was a night to remember!
Would you say that this bestial wave was set in motion by CONQUEROR and then built further upon by the likes of BLACK WITCHERY?
– Absolutely! The early CONQUEROR and BLACK WITCHERY stuff created huge waves in the European underground. Many people, young and old, were just sick and tired of seeing all this mainstream-guided, soft-washed, keyboard-driven dance music I don’t even wanna call ‘black metal’. Also, BLACK WITCHERY and AXIS OF ADVANCE coming over to Europe on tour was something very special at the time – full credit to MetalKommand – and had a big influence on the upcoming new ‘popularity’ of blackened death-noise bands.
Present during Nuclear Gathering of the Legions of Doom was Yosuke Konishi of Nuclear War Now! Productions, a California-based underground label Patrick had been trading with for many years. This visit planted the seeds for their collaborative effort, Nuclear War Now! Festival – a long-running annual fest which hosted quite a few legendary reunion shows.
– Yosuke wanted to set up a fest to promote his bands. Shortly after getting back to the US, he ran his idea of a cooperation by me and so it all began. It’s easy to travel to Berlin and the city has plenty of cheap options for accommodation as well as food and drinks. All the previous gigs and fests I set up went very smoothly, so there was no reason to even look elsewhere. Every year had a special billing, that’s for sure. I saw quite a few bands I never thought I’d see, at least not in Germany: CONQUEROR, HOLOCAUSTO, ORDER FROM CHAOS, MYSTIFIER, XIBALBA, IMPURITY, NOCTURNUS, and so on.
In 2012, Patrick left Berlin and moved to the opposite side of the country – close to the Dutch border instead of the Polish. One advantage appears to be the local authorities; Yosuke mentioned that there is generally no hassle shipping merchandise to IBP these days, whereas in Berlin it was ‘always a big customs nightmare’. Case in point, Yosuke once sent over a massive parcel of NWN! merch before one of the fests. Patrick drove him to the customs office, where he was subjected to two hours of bureaucracy before being told the shipment had the incorrect product code and would, as such, not be released. Adding insult to injury, they made him pay a ‘destruction fee’ of eighty dollars (73 EUR) to have his wares disposed of.
– It was definitely not a business-related move, but the customs office in Berlin was a one of a kind, for sure! My wife is from this area and always felt like going back at some point; since I don’t really care all that much about where I’m living, the move was a done deal. After the relocation, the second floor of our house was used for the label and distro – however, we soon realised that working from home was not ideal and so packed up our goods once again and moved everything to a new warehouse in 2015.
When mentioning Patrick to his fellow label managers, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that he is an absolute workhorse. Whilst definitely not of the typical ‘businessman’ ilk, he clearly possesses psychotic self-discipline combined with seemingly inexhaustible passion and strong entrepreneurial skills.
– Haha! Well, I think that nails it very well. I love what I do and always take on things with full dedication. With IBP growing significantly over the past decade, I had to learn a lot of new things, make changes, and constantly adapt – but at all times I’ve tried to stay true to myself and the reasons why I founded Iron Bonehead all those years ago. I am by no means a businessman, nor have I ever aimed for running a commerce-driven operation. I enjoy handling things entirely the way it pleases me; that’s how it’s been from the very start. Looking at the label, I don’t think too much has changed since then. I still choose bands after personal interest, rather than based on a computer program telling me whether they will sell or not. And looking at the acts I work with now, or did in the past, as well as the steady base of customers and supporters I built over the years, it seems legit to say that people honour the work done so far and share the passion for extraordinary sounds.
Iron Bonehead has released records of many respected underground names, but BÖLZER and CULT OF FIRE were the first to really break through – roughly around the same time. Both bands then parted ways with Iron Bonehead after highly successful albums, opting to found their own labels.
– Things happen. The romantic idea of a band and a label working together on building something strong and rising does not work out every time, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever run a label or played in a band noticed himself. All of us are still different in our ways and ideas, and often it might be better for both parties to go their separate ways – sometimes bitter and frustrating, other times fruitful, liberating, and much-needed.
As discussed with Michael Berberian of Season of Mist a few months ago, this is part of a recent-year development – likely sparked by the success of MGŁA – where bands start their own labels.
– I can understand the idea and wish to run things on your own terms and also fully benefit from sales, but it’s really not as easy as it might look. There are reasons labels do exist and make a legit part of a band’s popularity. And since you mentioned MGŁA, they run their own label and brand but the operation of, for example, shipping out orders still goes through a second party – which is another label. With worldwide connections, marketing tools, and well-organised groundwork, a label can influence the popularity of a band in big parts; you can recognise this in any music genre. Personally, I think it’s impossible to manage all the promotion, order handling, and so on whilst on the other hand touring or writing a new record. At some point, you have to partner up with someone who takes care of such things and, within the blink of an eye, you’re back to the basic label-and-band concept.
New Zealand’s VASSAFOR – last week’s Bardo Methodology feature – just released their new album, “To the Death”, through Iron Bonehead. It is quite baffling to me why this highly original band with supreme musicianship doesn’t garner more attention.
– VASSAFOR can be labelled as a one of a kind, for sure, and their concepts are neither for the mainstream nor people with short attention spans. I see the band gets a lot of great feedback on the internet and, looking at their record and merch sales, they receive a lot of support as well. However, living so far away from Europe or North America makes it almost impossible for promoters to book them. The European tour in 2015 with BÖLZER and ASCENSION helped a lot to get their name out; it was a full success on all levels. But that was one tour, on the mainland only, and five years ago already. Their appearance at Never Surrender Festival was another successful happening in the history of the band, and this is where you see that they could still reach wider attention and also gain new fans. VASSAFOR need proper promotion and distribution – which, looking at their previous collaborations, wasn’t always the case – and to get their asses out on stage, that’s my humble opinion.
In 2018, Nuclear War Now! gave way to Never Surrender. In an underground world where branding is of the utmost importance, it’s an interesting choice to abandon such a respected name and essentially do the same thing under a different moniker.
– There are two main reasons for this. A festival with only Nuclear War Now! bands playing is a bit limited and, at some point, damned to repeat itself. The second point is that I wanted to give my bands a platform too. Both of us have built strong rosters over the years, with a wide variation of bands and sounds that make it more interesting for all parties to enjoy the fest for many years ahead. Looking at a sold-out venue and successful weekend for all bands, it seems to me that people don’t mind the name change at all.
In other news, Patrick is active as a musician again. As far as I can determine, BAXAXAXA is his first musical involvement since leaving WITCHBURNER. I missed their set at Never Surrender and so had little idea of what to expect when I put on their October 2019 demo, “The Old Evil”. I knew it was an early-90s band initially revived for a few gigs; thus, based on repeated past experience, I assumed it would be the usual gathering of nostalgic middle-aged men seeking an escapist break from mundane reality. Not quite the case here, I must say, this is some delightfully nasty stuff – clearly infused with something beyond simple nostalgia. It has strong Swiss elements, both “Worship Him” and CELTIC FROST, mixed with a keyboard ambience that reminds me of early ISENGARD and the first NÅSTROND.
– Thanks for the good words on our demo; getting named alongside SAMAEL, CELTIC FROST, ISENGARD, and NÅSTROND is quite the compliment. There was no real reunion planned when we began, the initial idea was to just play two gigs – at the Destroying Texas Fest in the US and Never Surrender in Germany. But while rehearsing for those shows, we realised that the chemistry between us works perfectly and that lots of new ideas kept popping up… ideas which, in our minds, were too good to not work into new songs. And so it happened that we remained a full and active band even after the two gigs. I’d tried to rehearse with different people during my time in Berlin, but all these projects ended up nowhere so, at some point, I gave up. The label and promoter activity kept me busy. So, it feels even better to once again be active in a band like BAXAXAXA, where we share the same musical ideas and get along very well.
Since the demise of the occult robe-wearing black metal trend, along with this ‘murky’ death/black craze, I can’t really think of anything that’s come along to take their place. This has been ongoing for a while now, it seems all manner of cycles within metal appear and pass faster than ever before. Attention spans are so short now that it seems that one particular fad won’t have time to establish itself long enough to become a trend before people move on to the next thing. As Yosuke said in Bardo Methodology #5, ‘The ascension of social media culture has definitely had a profound impact on the speed with which new ideas, or recycled old ones, propagate through a scene.’
– I don’t think it died out quite yet, I still see plenty of bands out there that fit your description. And even if they did, it will come back at some point – just like what’s happened in the history of metal music all the time. But I agree with Yosuke here; with the use of social media and free availability of music, people have little to invest and value bands and their music differently. Young people might tend to move from one hype to another faster but, in the long run, they either find their ‘sound’ or leave the scene altogether. Ever since, it’s been a constant transition. The same goes for bands: they simply need more than a couple of social media followers, clicks, and fancy ideas to catch the fame for a second. Those with a strong idea and will are the ones who remain for longer.