Despite the fact that there are a lot of fans of Dead Head, one of the vedettes of the Dutch metal scene, at VM-Underground, it took a lot of digging in the deep archives to find that the last Q&A dates back to 2006. Of course, that’s way too long ago! I dusted off the contacts and talked to guitarist Ronnie Vanderwey about the latest album ‘Slave Driver’, the (distant) past and the future.
Hi Ronnie, welcome to VM-Underground and thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. As you may know, we at VM-Underground do have a weak spot for Dead Head, the band has been featured quite a few times, including two interviews dating back to the years 2000 and 2006. That requires some catching up! Your latest album, ‘Slave Driver’, has now been released almost a year to the day. An eminently appropriate time to take a look back. How would you describe the whole process surrounding the creation of that album?
I would describe the process as an unguided missile that finally hit the target. Recordingwise things have changed over the past years… Nowadays it is more a fragmented process whilst in the old day we were used to be locked up in a recording studio an finish the recording within a couple of weeks. The advantage of the latter method is that you can work very efficiently and focused. The disadvantage is that you don’t have the opportunity to step back for a while and reconsider some decisions.
If you wanted to describe Dead Head, you could think of anything, but not that it is a band that has tinkered a lot with its musical direction. So how and where do you always find the drive to come up with a new album?
Indeed, but I’d rather qualify that fact as the appropriation of our own style. In the past we made some songs that obviously did not directly fit to our musical style. In some cases we succeeded to do something different, and sometimes it didn’t work out as intended. Our writing process however is a continuous development… Sometimes it comes in a flow, and sometimes the ideas seem to be less inspirated. We never force ourselves to write a song because we have to. It is always driven by spontaneous ideas
When we do take a closer look and listen to ‘Slave Driver’, one of the major difference is to be found on the vocal department. Long-time vocalist/bassist Tom van Dijk has left your ranks again and has, again, be replaced by Ralph de Boer. What’s up with this in-and-out relationship with those two musicians?
Yes, that indeed is quite remarkable… It might be a pragmatic move to deploy Ralph. But I think it is a small chance to find a singer that sounds like Tom anyway… and someone who doesn’t live in some country far away… and can play the bassguitar.
Other than the slight difference in vocal approach, what do you consider the main difference between ‘Slave Driver’ and your previous recordings and ‘Swine Plague’ in particular?
I consider the main difference is that ‘Slave Driver’ sounds somewhat more consistent. But I also find it quite difficult to analyze because I might be involved too closely on this subject. Fresh ears should make a purer judgment on this. Another difference also is that Robbie Woning (guitar right) wrote more material on ‘Slave Driver’. And Ralph and the rest of the band have been more involved in the writing of the lyrics.
Your current label, Hammerheart Records, seems to be a driving force for the band in the last couple of years. Not only have they released your two latest albums, they have also re-issued some of your back catalogue, of which I especially appreciated the vinyl version of ‘Kill Division’, how do you look back at that reissuing campaign?
Well, we simply have the luck that the people of Hammerheart obviously like the band. I think we have gained some appreciation in the last couple of decades when we regularly played live in the country. And we are grateful that our older albums are (again) easily available now. I personally find it very inconvenient that some bands made terrific albums that are very hard to obtain now. Or cost 50 euros or more for a first pressing…
And now almost everything seemed to be made available again, what about ‘Depression Tank’? That album, originally released by Displeased Records, seem to be the only gap in your discography when it comes to albums on vinyl.
To fulfill your request I can announce that ‘Depression Tank’ will be released in a re-recorded version in a couple of months. We are working on a short live section to be added to the new package. And as a completion to that release we will play several songs from the DT album live.
I remember reading a newspaper article some years ago in which Dead Head drummer Hans Spijker was interviewed because of your support slot for Slayer. It was a bit of a childhood dream come true for him. Do you also consider this one of the highlights in your career as a band? Can you share some other memories that you cherish?
Of course we have considered it an honour that we could open up for Slayer. And it was a great experience too. Back in the nineties and zeros we did some gigs with Kreator, Exodus, Sepultura and Edge of Sanity. Such opportunities are always fun to do. For me personally it was a highlight that I could encounter with Adrian Vandenberg backstage in Enschede while supporting Slayer (Adrian lives in Enschede you must know). We had a short meeting where I could show my sunburst Les Paul to Adrian…
Dead Head has been a part of the Dutch extreme metal scene since your foundation back in 1989. That is quite a life-spanning career with at good share of our readers not even been born back then, it is all the more surprising that Dead Head has suffered little from inner struggles, or so it seems, as the line-up has remained pretty stable. How do you explain this closeness between you guys?
That is a combination of the love of music and the fact that we have come to a point where we respect each other and leave room for differences. I can assure you that it is not always love & peace… We can be really harsh on one another during the writing and recording process. But the main thing is that we all have learned to understand that the result, or better the effort to reach the maximal achievement, is the most important thing in the end. The person who made the most apologies to me in my life must be our drummer Hans Spijker.
Now we’ve jumped on the retrospective train. In those almost 35 years (!) the extreme metal scene as a whole has changed a lot over the years and maybe even more in the second half of your career. How would you describe the difference between “the scene back” then the way it is now?
That is a completely different world. With its own advantages AND disadvantages. A big difference I think is the fact that real heavy music has become far more mainstream. For a part we can attribute this to the acceptance of Metallica to a worldwide audience. The other part is the influence of the internet and the possiblity of (relatively cheap) digital recording. The whole system of making a demo and trying to get a proper record deal has more or less disappeared. Bands are far more self supporting and able to do things themselves.
And what about the influences to the band? Is it still the very same records that is getting you on your collective bikes and crank out some new riffs and write good music? And what about the lyrical content?
Yes, remarkably enough we still come back to bands we collectively like a lot… I can become very enthusiastic hearing the latest Obituary or the latest Overkill or Morbid Angel or Immolation. Additionally there are lots of ‘new’ bands that have become a serious source of inspiration. Lyrically I tend to write more about realistic things and developments in society. That is because this world has become a theater of craziness and polarization. You cannot escape that. So there are numerous topics that invite to write a firm statement against them. But for Dead Head I find it more appropriate to have lyrics that express the atmosphere of the song.
And for you, on a personal level, life has changed. It only makes sense that you participate in the “metal life” with less abandon and that there are other things in your life that have become more important. How do you balance those things with still running the band?
For me that is no problem. I work virtually part-time and I have enough time to spend on music, both actively as well as passively. But I’m also very lazy so doing nothing means a lot to me. But I tend to get pretty inspired as I reach the point of boredom. And that is a great blessing of being a musician: you never get jaded when you have a nice guitar to express your ideas. The crucial point is that our collective schedules do not match very often. So we have often problems to manage sessions in which we all can participate.
In the sense of buying records and visiting shows, are you still following the metal scene as a whole?
For sure. The biggest advantage of the modern digital era is that there is an enormous amount of interesting material on the internet to be discovered. So it is quite simple for anyone to keep informed about the developments in the metal world. But since the offer of musical releases has become so numerous it is impossible to miss out a lot of things.
Speaking of records, what were the last records that you bought or listened to that really grabbed you? Is there anything in particular that you like to recommend?
In the past month I bought the latest Morbid Angel (I know it was released in 2017!) and I caught up with the phenomenon of Jeff Beck. And I heard the latest record of our labelmates Sammath, who made a very great album… My biggest ‘discovery’ however was the band Portal from Australia… But mostly, when I buy a CD, it is a classic from the past that I only have had on vinyl or cassette. I am keen on first pressings. I most cases I get attracted to something I have heard/seen on Youtube… If the attraction sustains I finally buy the cd. I even consider buying the new Metallica… :- P
Something I personally hugely appreciate is Dead Head’s stoicism. The Thrash Metal genre has gone through quite a few changes over the last 30-35 years. Hypes came and went. Melody and influences from Hardcore, groove or Nu-Metal were added and (almost) forgotten again. But Dead Head just continued to basically sound like how the band once started. All this time, was it a natural reflex to just stick to yourselves or did you sometimes also have to restrain yourselves from also playing a bit more “adventurous” music?
I really like it that you consider Dead Head as a stoic band… Because I see myself as a stoic person. The question you might come up with is whether that is a choice or conviction or just a matter of ignorance and lack of musical ability… (?) I have always appreciated bands that could change their styles and do significantly different things without losing their own identity or footprint. Pestilence has done that with the ‘Spheres’ album. Pantera after the ‘Power Metal’ album. But in several other cases drastic changes turned out in failure or very questionable music. Either it is a ‘miss’ or a ‘hit’. But to lift a slight tip of the curtain: our new EP features some ‘different’ stuff. Among some very ‘typical’ Dead Head tunes…
Like the dedication you guys seem to have for the musical identity of Dead Head, you also seem to be just as dedicated to the band as an entity. Apart from a few exceptions the three of you (not counting Ralph de Boer, who is also in Bodyfarm) hardly played in other bands. Never really felt the urge to do something different with another band?
For me personally I don’t want to be involved in another band at this very moment. I like to concentrate and put all the effort in Dead Head. But I would speak against the whole statement of not being associated with other bands or projects. In the past all of our band members have done things in other bands… Beyond Belief, Equimanthorn, God Dethroned, Asphyx, Apple, Jurassic Park, Elise, Phantom Druid, Temple, Staal… To name a few in which we have participated.
There was a five-year gap between ‘Swine Plague’ and ‘Slave Driver’, is that about the time span that we need to keep in our minds when we are expecting a new album?
Yes and no. For now we have planned to release an EP in the summer of this year. And I expect that our eighth full size album will see the light in 2025. Maybe earlier.
Okay, Ronnie, thanks a lot for your time and effort in answering the questions. We had to wait 5 years for ‘Slave Driver’ but you had to wait a whopping 17 years for this interview, we do make sure we do come back to you much sooner than 2040. That’s a promise! The last words are yours…
We will see what the future will bring us. In 2040 I will be 72 years (288 seasons) old, Deo Volente. If I don’t know by then, I never will… Thanks for the attention and the sensible questions. STAY HEAVY and stay true to your own beliefs.
Photos by: Cindy van Stralendorff
- Country: Netherlands
- Style: Thrash Metal
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