Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Ripple Conversation with John Mortimer of Holocaust

Holocaust were one of the fore-runners of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. With anthems like “Heavy Metal Mania” - their music became the soundtrack for a new generation of heavy metal fans. Through the lovely medium that is social networking, I was able to become friends with guitarist/vocalist John Mortimer, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to do this short interview with me.

The Wikipedia page for Holocaust appears to have not been updated in awhile – but on your facebook page it says you recently released on EP Called “Expander” featuring songs that will be on an upcoming full – length called “Sweet Liberty”.  Can you tell me more about that? 

Up until recently the album was pretty clear cut - we had 13 new songs ready to go, (almost). Just recently however there has been serious label interest in the album that I describe as a "pure art project in essence". It looks as if the next studio album will be old songs recorded by the current band and then two albums consisting of "Sweet Liberty" material and material from the earlier project. The whole thing is in a state of flux.

How did you go from being the guitarist to the lead singer?

Initially it was a matter of necessity. After the original band split up I began working with drummer Steve Cowen and writing songs... well, I was the only one there to sing them. Gradually I came to like the vocal thing and got a little more confident. I really valued the fact that I could express what I wanted to express vocally and not have someone else interpret my lyrics. To be just absolutely honest though, it's only been since 2011 that I have felt completely confident and happy with the singing. I LOVE it now.

Your voice is definitely different than Gary Lettice, but still sounds great singing the classics. Is it easier or more difficult for you to be the front man – was it a natural progression?

It means a lot of rehearsal...a lot of work combining rhthym and lead guitar, with the related effects switching, with vocals. These days, (again since 2011), I love being the front man. Prior to 2011 I used to feel it as pressure...a necessary burden, you know? But now it is a joy, it is exectly what I'm supposed to be doing. The stage feels like "home" for me now and I love getting all that attention.  

Do you sometimes feel like you need a second guitarist for some of the guitar harmonies?

I have reworked a lot of the lead guitar from the early days. It is true that the twin lead guitar thing was a feature of the NWOBHM and the first two Holocaust albums did have that in places. So I guess it is a bit of a shame that that feature is lost on stage now. However I would say that the essence of the early songs is articulated much better by the current band....and the twin lead guitars is just like a missing decoration. We play the instrumental opening of "Heavy Metal Mania" with the bass doing the harmony and I think it feels more NWOBHM than the Nightcomers version! Holocaust has been a trio through much of its existence to date, even though it was launched as a 5-piece. I never think about a second guitarist these days.

Being based in Scotland did you find yourselves a bit removed from the whole NWOBHM scene?

Yes. Back in those pre-internet days it was all about what contacts you had and we were just a bunch of school kids. We didn't know any booking agents or whatever. Gary worked at the record store owned and run by John Mayer, (the guy who formed the Phoenix label), and so he was our one contact. John Mayer did what he could – not least, release three singles, three albums, a Live video and an EP! - but we never got networked with the Live scene in England. The only places the original band got to play were in Scotland. England largely ignored us. We were aware that there were good sales of "The Nightcomers" in Holland but the band broke up before we could establish any contacts there.   

What was the metal climate like in Edinburgh during this time?

It was great from the point of view of there being loads of Metal fans. You'd see a lot of denim with patches and pins and like, Motorhead and Sabbath and Zeppelin T-shirts out on the streets, you know? But from the point of view of bands...... Holocaust was the only real Metal band in Edinburgh at the time.

What are some of your personal favorite bands from that era?

If you mean specifically NWOBHM, (which would exclude Budgie and Motorhead, who were already established), then my own personal favorites were Witchfynde, Samson and Mythra. That was at the time....nowadays my favorite band from that era is Spartan Warrior. I knew of their existence back in the day but never heard any of their material. For me, Spartan Warrior capture the essence of the NWOBHM perfectly.

How would you compare the music scene in the UK then and now for original bands?

Depressingly, it is just as difficult today. That's because the UK generally sucks when it comes to the attitude of most club venues. It's like they expect the band to do all the promotion and they don't expect to be thinking about a fee unless you are the size of Megadeth or something. There are one or two venues in Scotland NOT like that but the situation is far better in places like Holland, Belgium, Germany. 

There are so many festivals for “Classic” British heavy metal, like Brofest, British Steel Festival, Keep it True – what is the fan reaction like for Holocaust at these events?

Just unbelievable! Well, I believe it now but it was staggering to me how the awareness of the band out there had increased in the years I was out of action, (basically 2003 – 2011). The response is genuinely overwhelming at times. There was a stage invasion during a Dutch gig with all these people singing "Heavy Metal Mania" and it choked me up because I remembered right then and there how patronizing and demeaning the music press were in the UK when that song was released in 1980. But that is just one example. It's the age range of the fans these days that is encouraging also. Sure, we have fans who are in their 50s but some are as young as 14! The fact that so many people in their teens and early 20s love the band is very heartening. Then there's the fact that we have fans in so many different places. We did a mini-tour of Greece and Cyprus in 2012 and I was astonished at how many loyal fans were telling me they never thought they would see me. We have fans in Turkey and even in Iran. That international aspect means a lot to me. The international Heavy Metal community means a lot to me.

Do you prefer playing being fests like that or small club shows?

You know, I used to feel nervous about small gigs?! It used to be that the bigger the crowd was, the more relaxed I would be. I remember playing Wacken in 1993, third on the bill, and I just felt so at ease outdoors in front of thousands of people. But the next gig was a club gig in Edinburgh and I was shaking with nerves at the start of that! Crazy, huh?!

These days I love massive, I love tiny...I love it all. We had a great little trip to France recently, where we played the British Steel (France) festival with Girlschool and M:Pire Of Evil one day and a tiny underground, (literally underground!), club in Paris the next day. The contrast was mind-blowing and great fun. Both gigs were awesome!

When Metallica covered “The Small Hours” on their Garage Days EP did that help or hurt the band or not effect your career at all?

Well again, this was pre-internet. By that time, (1987), the big media in the UK had decided that Heavy Metal was a thing of the past and so hardly anyone in the UK realised the significance of that cover. Certainly the small independent label, Chrome, expressed an interest in doing a mini-album with Holocaust and so "The Sound Of Souls" was born. That was definitely a help. But we were entering a period in the UK, (basically the 1990s), when old school Metal was virtually invisible. The publishing royalties I got at the time financed the next album, "Hypnosis Of Birds", which was released on a label I set up. Not being able to get enough contacts and gigs outside of the UK was the killer – I cannot stress that strongly enough. We got to play Wacken on the strength of "The Small Hours" cover because the German organisers realised the significance of it. So anyway, to answer your question, it helped....

What about the Gamma Ray and Six Feet Under covers?

I love all three of those covers. I love the fact that Metal bands of such differing styles cover those songs. I'm really pleased about that.

How do you feel about these bands paying homage to you?

Makes me feel like a star because those people are total stars.

You're not shy about your love for Lady Gaga.

Damn right!

I think its very cool that a “metal” person isn't afraid to admit they like other forms of music. What is it about her that draws you to her?

My love for Lady Gaga is not simply the result of admiration for an artist. I mean, I think she IS a phenomenally talented artist but when I seriously connected with Gaga's work it produced deep and radical changes in me. I absolutely guarantee that Holocaust would not be happening now if it were not for the effect that wonderful woman has had on me.

Before May 2011 I used to perceive her as an eccentric pop queen....which was fair enough but not what I was interested in. Then on the evening of 15-May-2011 I was surfing YouTube with the headphones on and I stumbled across Gaga's new video at the time, "Judas". I still remember how shivers went through me watching the opening of that video. You know how the motorcycle riders all have their names, (of the 12 disciples), on their backs? There's a section, just as the song is starting, where the one with "JOHN" on his back does this really unexpected thing...he kind of leans over toward the road and makes a graceful motion with his hand that repreesents sowing seeds. Even at that moment I had this eerie feeling that there was something deeply important for me here. Before I knew it, I was watching the entire video for the sixth or seventh time. Each time I was getting something new from the song and also from the visuals. But each time the feeling increased that there was something extraordinary going on inside me....something wonderful but disturbing at the same time. I decided to check out another video of hers and happened to choose "Alejandro". I remember thinking half way through that, "Oh, she really is an ARTIST then – not just a pop star!"

From the next day onward I was obsessed by her. I downloaded all her music, watched all the videos and every interview I could. I wore the T-shirts and all that. For many weeks I thought of nothing but Lady Gaga...talked of nothing else, as anyone who knows me on a routine basis will testify. Hahaha! She had made me so happy and I felt a completely bewildering sense of love and adoration for her. I thought I was just a big fan and that was all. However the obsession got more intense and I remember one night watching one her speeches from the Monster Ball tour about self-acceptance and weeping uncontrollably. It was at that point that I realized something very profound was happening and I had to get down to some serious soul searching. It's difficult to know how best to express all this but I will use the concepts that have been useful to me. It seemed to me that there was a common vibration, (or quality of energy), in everything she did, whether it was a song or a photo or what she would say in an interview and how she would say it. This vibration had the effect of lifting the weight of a dark and heavy energy within me that I had not even been aware of. No other artist, no other figure had this effect of burning away that darkness, which would always return whenever I wasn't immersed in Lady Gaga. The question for me was, what WAS this dark and heavy energy? Gaga's message of unconditional self-acceptance helped me to see what it was. Unconditional self-acceptance does not mean that you approve of everything you are – neither does it mean that you disapprove. Approval and disapproval don't come into it. The point is that you SEE what is there. And to my surprise, what was there was self-loathing. It was not the kind of self-loathing that is the result of a particular acute experience but rather something that had gradually formed and got heavier and darker over the years and decades. It was no-one's fault, (not even mine), it was just there, so familiar that I didn't even notice it. The very fact of dispassionately observing what is there is freedom from compete identification from what is there and in no time I had jettisoned all that and I felt like I was a new creation!

Up to that point I had felt like I was this weird, unattractive personality who had musical talent but nobody else was ever going to be interested in anything I did. You know, it was the poor, misunderstood genius thing – boohoo! Hahaha! But with the Gaga experience, everything was new and different. Re-launching Holocaust was now the most natural thing in the world and I just wanted to be on stage and perform and have fun and meet people and all of that. It was scary, however, just how quickly everything moved. I had been writing and recording an album with Scott Wallace and Mark McGrath since 2003 but I didn't think of it as a Holocaust album. It was more of a pure art project in essence. As soon as the three of us decided we would launch Holocaust again, (I mean the very next damn day!), I got the offer of singing "Heavy Metal Mania" and "Death Or Glory" at the Keep It True festival in Germany. The German band Roxxcalibur were doing a set of NWOBHM covers and had invited the original vocalists as surprise guests for that show. I remember waiting in the wings whilst the meister of ceremonies was doing his build up for me coming on and of being so aware at that moment of the difference Gaga had made in me. Previously, if I had been in the situation of going on in front of thousands of people with no guitar I would have kind of skulked out, trying to hide behind my hair and gone straight to shaking hands with the band members and then waving modestly to the crowd as if to say, "Oh – you're all TOO kind, I mean, I'm no big deal". But NOW! HAHAHA! I was like, "WHOOOOO", and – well I'll send you the pics! Those pics from Keep It True 2012 will always be iconic for me in representing the difference Gaga made in my life. I will be forever grateful to her, as will hundreds of thousands of others whom she has touched in unspeakably wonderful ways.

Do you see yourself using her showmanship in Holocaust shows? (Although I don't think wearing the meat dress would be a good idea)

The meat dress would not be a good idea only because she and her pals have already thought of it and done it. I see the whole thing about projecting persona and creating images in a completely new way now. It's an undisovered continent for me and I would rule nothing out. What limits me is money and contacts. Gaga had the same financial constraints in her early career and it has been fascinating reading her anecdotes about how she dealt with that. You ask about showmanship and there is no doubt that what one wears is a big part of that. As for attitude and contact with the audience, I don't imitate anything Gaga has done BUT I am definitely going through my own little revolution that way thanks to the effect her amazing work has had on me.

And finally – where on the web can people check you out? Any upcoming shows you want to plug?

At this time, unfortunately, the official website is not yet up and running but it won't be long. In the meantime there is the Holocaust The Band Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Holometal) and my own facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/john.mortimer.127).

It's been a very long time since Holocaust last played on the American continent, (we have only ever had 3 shows in the USA), but our first ever Canadian gig is happening in August as we headline the Wings Of Metal fest in Montreal. (https://www.facebook.com/WingsOfMetalFestival) That will be special, not only because it is the first time in Canada but also because we will be playing every single song from The Nightcomers album. In fact it will be the longest Holocaust set to date. There are 4 songs in that set that have not been played Live since 1981.

Any final words for Ripple Effect readers?

Love and Light.


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