Open The Vault: A Conversation With Kurdt Vanderhoof of Metal Church

It’s April 9, 2020. A deadly virus is spreading across the globe, killing tens of thousands of people. Millions of others are holed up inside their homes, some by self-quarantine, but most by governmental order. People are terrified of contracting this new strain of deadly disease, and the world as we know it has been unceremoniously brought to its knees.

How apocalyptically heavy metal is this world we currently live in?

While the bringer of all of this unrest — Coronavirus, or COVID-19 — currently makes its way across planet Earth, Metal Church guitarist and founder Kurdt Vanderhoof is keeping a close and vigilant watch from his new home in Southern California. Despite the havoc that’s being wreaked on a global scale, the 58-year-old guitarist originally from Aberdeen, Washington remains cautiously optimistic. How could one not be in a band called Metal Church?

“At the risk of getting too political, when we get past and through this, we’re going to be much better on the other side,” Vanderhoof said in an interview with ListenIowa. “There’s a lot more going on than people know, and if you watch mainstream news, you’re being lied to. But there’s definitely a thing going around, and everybody needs to be careful and follow the rules. When we get through it, though, we’re going to be awesome on the other side.”

And what better way to usher in the dawn of a new day than with the arrival of a new Metal Church album. Virus or not, it’s time for worship at the altar of Metal Church.

The band has just released a brand new platter of thunder called “From The Vault,” featuring 14 previously unreleased tracks, including fresh offerings, “Dead On The Vine,” “For No Reason,” and “Above The Madness,” as well as a punishing redux of the fan favorite “Conductor.” The remaining tracks were culled from various recording sessions in the band’s Mike Howe-era history and include five tracks from 2018’s “Damned if You Do” sessions and two live tracks recorded in Kawasaki, Japan, on the band’s 2018 world tour.

Also included are Church-icized covers of Sugarloaf’s “Green Eyed Lady,” Nazareth’s “Please Don’t Judas Me,” and classic radio staple “Black Betty” by Ram Jam.

And if that’s not enough for Metal Church fans, a limited edition, 22-page comic book, “Return of the Fake Healer,” featuring the artwork of midwest comic book illustrator Andrew Owens, is available. The comic book also comes with an additional compilation CD featuring a mix of “XI” and “Damned If you Do” tracks as well as two previously-unreleased mixes of “Killing Your Time” and “Needle & Suture.”

The eclectic collection serves as a sort of “thank you” to the fans from Vanderhoof, vocalist Mike Howe, drummer Stet Howland, bassist Steve Unger and guitarist Rick Van Zandt, who are currently taking a much-needed break from the road while Vanderhoof completes his transition from a lifelong Northwesterner to sunny Californian.

“I lived in Washington, out on the coast, where I grew up, but I couldn’t take the weather anymore,” Vanderhoof admitted. “It was killing me. I also needed to be closer to some of the music industry and other musicians.”

Yesterday it was the weather chasing Vanderhoof, today it’s a killer mutating virus. Such is life for the talented riffmeister, who says that, despite the madness around him, life really hasn’t changed that much. 

“I’ve realized that quarantining and social distancing is basically my lifestyle anyway,” he joked. “For me personally, the only thing that’s really changed is that the gym is closed.”

ListenIowa caught up with Vanderhoof to talk about the new record, the resurgence of Metal Church, and his love of prog.

This virus has turned the economy on its heels, music industry included. Has Metal Church felt the sting of having to cancel any touring or anything as such?
Metal Church hasn’t. We didn’t have anything on the books. My 70s prog band, Presto Ballet, we were booked on Cruise To The Edge, which got cancelled. That’s the only thing that’s affected me directly, but it will be rescheduled, like everything else. I had put Metal Church on the ice for a bit because I was in the process of moving and selling my house and finding a new place to live. We had literally toured the world after this last record, but we’ll pick things up and start writing a new studio album again. And after that comes out, we’ll hit the road and do our thing.

Your new album, “From the Vault,” is an interesting mix of a few new tracks, live music, B-sides, etc. How did this project come about?
We just had all this stuff, literally, in the vault that we’d been doing from the last two records, and all this live stuff. The record company, Rat Pak, said that if we’re going to be on hiatus, we have all this stuff, so let’s put something fun together. That’s literally what it was — to kind of empty the vault so we can start new stuff. And it’s for the fans, with the collectibles, and rarities, and just kind of off-the-wall stuff. And a comic book. (laughs)

Yes, I noticed that! That’s a sign that you’ve truly made it when you have your own comic book.
I know! And we didn’t even put our blood or any other body fluids into the ink! (laughs)

The cover tune selection was interesting. “Black Betty” wouldn’t be the first song I’d expect Metal Church to cover. You took the blueprint of the original and really kicked it up a notch. Stet really shines on this one.
We kind of went through a thing where we all picked a cover tune. Something we wanted to do for fun. Stet actually picked “Green Eyed Lady,” Mike wanted to do “Please Don’t Judas Me,” and Rick picked “Black Betty.” The one I picked actually didn’t work.

Which one?
I wanted to do something like what (Judas) Priest did with “Diamonds and Rust” and “Green Manalishi.” Pick something completely over in left field and try to metallize it. I picked a Joni Mitchell tune and it didn’t work. (laughs) So much for trying to be really clever.

The B-sides are great, too. “False Flag” has a great groove, and the instrumental track, “Insta Mental.” Had you guys recorded an instrumental before?
We had “Merciless Onslaught” from our first album, but this one was one of those riffs that was like, “You know, let’s just leave it like that.” There was no big plan, nothing really overthought. It sounded fine just like it is. We beefed it up and polished it up a bit, and there you have it.

That song leads right into you playing nylon string on “432 hz.”
I’m not a very good fingerpicker, but I want to be Alex Lifeson (Rush guitarist) when I grow up. (laughs) I listen to their old records and they have all that nylon-stringed, kind of classical stuff. I love that. I’m not really that great on a nylon string, but I love doing it, then harmonizing it, stuff like that.

What does the title mean?
That’s the tuning. Most stuff is in standard 440 tuning. This isn’t. 432 is the original tuning that music used to be before it was changed to 440.

Interesting. I learn something new every day.
Hey, we’re here to help. (laughs)

Was it a challenge to sequence this album? There’s a lot going on, but it still flows really well.
That was kind of Joe O’Brien at Rat Pak thing. He just kind of did all that. He and I went back and forth on that, but yeah, what he did sounded great.

Metal Church has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years. What do you attribute that to?
Mike coming back, definitely. That has everything to do with it. When (previous vocalist) Ronnie (Munroe) left the band, I just didn’t see us having a fourth singer. That just seems cheesy to me. It would have ended, but it just so happened that Mike and I had been in contact around that time, so it kind of fell into place and made perfect sense. He and I finally get to work together in a complete capacity, which inspired a whole bunch of new stuff.

Did it take any arm twisting on your part to get him back in the fold?
Not really. He just had to see that the way we do business now is not the way we did business back in the day when the band broke up. Things are considerably different. He had to get his head around the new music industry, and that it’s all pretty much self-contained. We work with a record company, but it’s not a big record company. We are in complete control of everything we do. Once we started writing and he saw everything was going to be good, he was all in.

So no cartoon album covers being forced on you, is what you’re saying.
Yeah, that and nobody telling us what to do and ripping us off. All those classic “Behind the Music” stories, yeah, we have ours, too.

You guys played Des Moines in 2016, and it was good to see that so many fans still have a strong devotion to the band. Your early music from the David Wayne era, “Start the Fire,” or “Watch the Children Pray,” seem to strike a big chord still.
Everybody loves the music that you grew up on. You love the music from your formative years. And for most people, the first couple of Metal Church albums were those records. And they’re pretty good. David Wayne definitely had a signature voice, and we were part of a new movement, so I get it. I think it’s great to have anything you’ve done be considered a mandatory part of the genre. I love it. Unfortunately, it didn’t continue (with Wayne), but that’s great that I’ve been part of something that people consider very important to them. That’s pretty amazing and not lost on me.

Do you think Metal Church got overlooked at all back in the 80s? The band has always had a unique blend of melody and power, but were never huge.
Yes and no. Yes, we did, but there are reasons for it. The band changed. We changed lead singers. Dave had to go. I left because I wanted to pursue learning how to make records and engineering and songwriting. My interests were not living on a tour bus. I learned after doing “The Dark” that my interests were much more in the studio aspect of it. I didn’t know it at the time, but it allowed me to continue what I’m doing now. We changed lead singers right at the time Metal Church was launching. We’d just gotten off the road after touring with Metallica around the world. They were launching, we were going up. Everything was good. But things were not working with Dave at all. It had to be done. Those types of things definitely affected us, but I’m not going to sit around and cry about being overlooked. I don’t want to do that. There were reasons for it. There were some bad business decisions made, and we kind of fell by the wayside.

So what’s the game plan for you and Metal Church moving forward?
I’m working on some things, and obviously in the next few weeks I have all the time in the world to do it. (laughs) I have a theory that after this is all done, there’s going to be a glut of albums released — and babies.

And divorces.
(laughs). Yeah, probably. (laughs) I didn’t think about that one. But I’ve got a project I’m working on that will be coming probably by the end of summer. There will a new Presto Ballet album coming, which will be a double concept album. Because, it’s a prog band, and we have to have at least one of those. (laughs) That will be coming down the road, and I’ll start working on a new Metal Church album, probably by the end of summer.

1. Dead on the Vine
2. For No Reason
3. Conductor [redux]
4. Above the Madness

5. Mind Thief
6. Tell Lie Vision
7. False Flag
8. Insta Mental
9. 432hz

10. Please Don’t Judas Me  (NAZARETH COVER)
11. Green Eyed Lady (SUGARLOAF COVER)
12. Black Betty (RAM JAM COVER)

13. Agent Green (LIVE IN JAPAN)
14. Anthem to The Estranged (LIVE IN JAPAN)

15. “Killing Your Time” (Wizard mix) [digital and comic CD only]
16. Needle & Suture” (Metal mix) [digital and comic CD only]
17. “The Enemy Mind” (XI bonus track) [digital download version only]
18. “The Coward” (XI bonus track) [digital download version only]

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