If you follow metal, you’ve more than likely read something from David E. Gehlke. He’s written for numerous sites and publications over the years, and founded the excellent site Dead Rhetoric. I’ve known David for over a decade, and was excited to see he had written his first book. Damn The Machine tells the story of the legendary European label Noise Records that was home to bands such as Celtic Frost, Helloween, Kreator, Grave Digger, Voivod and many others. It’s an extensive and interesting history with dozens of interviews. I highly recommend you check it out. David fills us in on the book and a few other topics.
Chad Bowar: How did an American writer end up writing a book about a German record label?
David E. Gehlke: Good question, Chad. I’ve been a fan of many of the Noise bands for quite some time, but beyond that, Tom G. Warrior’s 2000 autobiography (Are You Morbid? Into the Pandemonium of Celtic Frost) and Hellloween’s rather vocal disdain for the label made me curious about the inner-workings of Noise Records.
Karl-Ulrich Walterbach is/was someone who didn’t actively seek the spotlight when he was running Noise, but when he reemerged on the scene a few years ago, I felt compelled to reach out and request an interview with him. We ended up talking for over two hours and once the chat was over, I remember telling my wife it may not be a bad idea to do a book about Noise Records. I proposed the idea to Karl, but he turned me down a number of times. After putting together a book proposal and approach he was happy with, he agreed, although I was adamant all of the Noise bands be interviewed. That was March 2014 and off to the races we went.
Talk about the research and interview process.
Noise had hundreds of bands on its roster and Karl has his own back story of being a squatter in Berlin during the seventies, so it was pretty extensive. It was primarily a matter of sorting out which bands to focus on, the type of people to talk to, the sequence of events, then piecing it all together. I conducted well over 75 interviews for the book, talking to every notable Noise band member, employee, as well as industry types and more. Karl was the constant thread, though. He and I spoke nearly every Sunday about the book, so he provided me with a wealth of information and contacts.
From first interview to turning it in to the publisher, how long did writing the book take?
About two-and-a-half years, give or take. I started writing the book in March of 2014 and finished that portion in September of 2016, then turned it in right after. The German translation and actual formatting of the book’s inner-design took some time, but for a 504-page book, was understandable. After a while, it did feel like the book would never be completed, but once some key interviews were taken care of, the book started to come together.
What was the most challenging part of the project for you?
Piecing together the mostly complex story of a label that was around in its first incarnation for 24 years. Noise had tons of great bands, some really good ones that never quite made it and every other kind of band in between, so deciding which ones to interview was a daunting task. Unfortunately, some bands had to be left out, but it would have been cool to talk to Scanner or Vendetta. Then there was Karl’s back story which was pretty crucial. In a close second would be convincing bands to take part. Some were concerned this was a Karl-Ulrich Walterbach project, but after convincing them it was not, most took part and were candid about their time with a label where things didn’t always go to plan. Some hard feelings still exist.
Was there anybody you weren’t able to interview that you would have liked to talk to for the book?
Two people: Rod Smallwood, who is Iron Maiden’s manager and also used to manage Helloween, not to mention was the owner of Sanctuary Music Group when they bought Noise in 2001. The other was Tairrie B., who was the singer of Manhole/Tura Satana. I was able to get in touch with both, but Rod doesn’t do any non-Iron Maiden related interviews and Tairrie simply felt it wasn’t right to talk about her time with Noise. It would have been great to get both, but obviously, I respect their decision not to talk.
Which interview surprised you the most, either positively or negatively?
Tom G. Warrior. He turned my interview requests down several times, but he eventually emailed me last April and we were able to talk. We spoke for over three hours and Tom was candid, honest, forthright and humble. He owned up to his past mistakes, namely Cold Lake, although he’s done that quite a bit already. His recollections of Celtic Frost’s (and Hellhammer’s) early years was remarkable and his ability to articulate his feelings for Karl and Noise really struck a chord with me. Tom was wary of the book from the moment it was presented to him, but he gave one of the best interviews for the book. It was an absolute pleasure getting to talk to him.
How important was Noise Records to the growth of the metal genre?
Prior to Noise’s entrance onto the scene in 1983, there were very few European metal labels. Karl helped build the infrastructure, whether it was through the bands he signed and developed, promotion and even touring. Not a lot of European bands toured the continent prior to Noise. Once Karl and the label started to gain steam, those opportunities started to present themselves. Outside of that, Karl signed dozens of influential bands, many of whom are still around today. These bands broke new ground, whether it was with death and black metal (Celtic Frost/Hellhammer), power metal (Grave Digger and Helloween) or thrash (Coroner and Kreator). The fact these bands are still around today and are still successful speaks volumes on how far ahead of the curve Karl was back in the eighties.
Were there any bands on the label that you think should have been more successful than they were, but maybe got lost in the promotional shuffle or had other issues?
Coroner is a band that instantly comes to mind. They were the leaders in technical thrash and had a cool look because of their artwork, but for whatever reason, they were never anything beyond a mid-tier band while on Noise. Today, many people cite them as legendary which I totally agree with, but when they were releasing albums on Noise, they were often overlooked in favor of other thrash bands. The competition was so stiff at the time, though. It was hard for a small trio from Switzerland to get noticed.
What are your expectations for the book?
I don’t have any sales expectations. I went into this knowing I’d probably lose money, but as long as it wasn’t a tremendous amount, simply the experience of getting to talk to all of these bands and being able to write about something I’m passionate about was enough for me. But, if people enjoy the book and learn something new about Noise or discover one of the label’s bands, then I’d consider the book a success.
Do you have any signings/events planned?
I don’t. It’s been suggested to me, but it’s not in my nature. I have a great publicist in Jon Freeman helping me out, so I’m hoping that will be more than enough in terms of exposure.
Would you like to write another book in the future?
Definitely. Once you do a book, you develop the itch to do another. I’ve started gathering ideas for a second book. It won’t be on a controversial subject like Noise Records, though. I’m hoping to do one on a band. The Noise book came with a lot of drama, so to speak, so I’d prefer to write about just a singular band. Then again, I wouldn’t shy away from doing a book about another record company, so we’ll see what happens.
How did you get started in music writing?
I got started in late 2001 for a now-defunct magazine out of Colorado called Throat Culture. On a whim, I sent the editor an email asking if he was taking on any new writers and luckily he said yes. He sent me some cardboard promos (remember those?) and I started reviewing albums. Great times. I had been an avid reader of Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, Metal Maniacs and Terrorizer as a teenager, so being able to join the journalistic ranks was really exciting for a 19-year-old teenager.
Other than the ones for the book, what has been your most memorable interview?
Even before writing the Noise book, speaking with Helloween guitarist Michael Weikath was memorable. He’s a joy to speak with, always armed with some kind of quirky or zany quote, but he’s also another guy who is very honest about what happened to his band. He has a fantastic memory; you can’t get much past the guy and when you get him on a roll about a certain happening or songwriting moment, it’s fun to sit back and listen.
Who are some fellow music writers you respect/admire?
Well, I’ve been reading your stuff for years, Chad, so put Chad Bowar on the list. Jeff Wagner, Martin Popoff, Ula Gehret, Borivoj Krgin, Kevin Stewart-Panko, Greg Pratt, Joel McIver, Malcolm Dome, John Tucker, Nathan T. Birk, J. Bennett, Justin M. Norton…the list could go on. We’re very fortunate to have such a wealth of great writers in the metal scene.
There has been a steep decline in print magazines and an explosion in websites and blogs. Where do you see the future of music journalism going?
The explosion of blogs and websites has opened the door for a lot of voices and opinions we normally wouldn’t get, so it may not be such a bad thing. A lot of these writers may not be in it for journalistic purposes; they’re simply fans wanting to air their opinion. You can’t fault someone for that. But, there are still a lot of great, reputable outlets available. Metal fans aren’t stupid – they know where to get good, reliable content. That will probably never change.
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
The book is the only thing I’m promoting at the time, so that would be it. I hope anyone who is a fan of European metal or wants to learn about the music business would take some time to check it out!
Damn The Machine: The Story Of Noise Records is available to order at this location.