Temple of the Heavy: A Conversation With Mike Howe of Metal Church

In the pantheon of underrated heavy metal bands, Washington state’s Metal Church has resided near — or at —  the top since delivering its self-titled debut album in 1984.

Quality was never an issue. Tracks such as “Metal Church,” or “Beyond the Black,” from the powerful debut; or “Ton of Bricks,” “Watch the Children Pray,” or “Method To Your Madness,” from the band’s 1986 sophomore effort, “The Dark,” solidified their rank amongst the thrashers of the day. Signed to Elektra Records, the band was on the veritible cusp of worldwide success.

But when original vocalist David Wayne bowed out in 1988, the band found itself at a crossroads. With album No. 3  due in the not-too-distant future, something needed to happen. The answer was in the form of then-Heretic vocalist Mike Howe, who joined Metal Church with the intent of helping to keep the ball rolling. The results were brilliant. The band’s third album, 1989’s “Blessing in Disguise,” as well as the follow up, “The Human Factor,” were — and still are — excellent metallic platters that hold up well to this day. 

Three decades on, Howe, founder Kurdt Vanderhoof (guitar), Stet Howland (drums), Rick Van Zandt (guitar) and Steve Unger (bass) are back once again with the release of “Damned If You Do” (Rat Pak Records), the band’s 12th full-length album and a follow-up to 2016’s stellar “XI.”

With “Damned If You Do,” Vanderhoof once again draws from an endlessly timeless riff bank, churning out nifty compositions such as“Revolution Underway” with its instantly recognizable mix of clean-yet-dirty guitar tones, and the tightly woven gallop of the follow-up, “Guillotine.” Album standouts “Rot Away” and “Out Of Balance” showcase the Vanderhoof/Howe staccato guitar/vocal stylings that are, ironically, in balance.

ListenIowa caught up with Howe to discuss the new album, why he returned to the band in 2014, and what it was like having to step into the shoes of Wayne.

“Damned If You Do” is a classic Metal Church album and almost sounds like there’s an attitude of, “If you thought Metal Church was done, take a listen to this,” in there.
We didn’t overthink it as usual, but we did go into it trying to get a little heavier, actually, and to see how that would go. So that was a little bit on purpose. Normally going into it, Kurdt will write 18-20 songs, and we’ll go through them in the studio where I’ll grab a mic and start screaming out melodies to see what works. In the end, some of the heavier stuff just worked out, and that’s what made the album.

It’s interesting that bands like Metal Church, Testament, Overkill, seemingly are getting better —and heavier — with age.
It is metal. It’s about getting the frustrations of life out, just like rock n’ roll, just a little bit heavier. On 11, pun intended. (laughs)

Anything songs from the new record stand out?
I look at them like children. I don’t like one or the other per se, because they are all different styles, and I have a different experience with each one of them. “Damned If You Do” stands out to me because of the “hums” in there, which is something we’ve never done before or experimented with. I’m particularly proud of that.

How many of the new songs are you going to try to work into the live set?
Well, from “XI,” we did three, so we’ll probably do something like that. We like playing new music, and that’s what it’s all about for me, so we’ll at least try to squeeze that many in there.

You’ll be heading back out on the road here soon. Being a veteran of the industry now, what approach do you take to touring at this point?
It’s a lot different. First and foremost, we’re older and we all have different home lives that need to be considered. We’re not 20-year-olds with no responsibilities who can throw caution to the wind, jump on a bus and tour for months on end. That’s a difficult prospect to work these days. We have to balance getting on the road, making it make sense budget-wise, but also not be away from home too long. We’ll be doing the European festival run as usual (next year), and we’ll book the in-between shows around the festivals that we’re offered, so the European tours fall together pretty easily. It’s the States where it’s a little harder because we don’t have the festival circuit like they do over there.

But you guys are planning some sort of a U.S. run, though, correct?
Yes. It’s a big country. But it’s hard to hit all the spots and make it feasible money-wise.

You rejoined the band back in 2014 after an extensive period away. What was your conversation with Kurdt that convinced you to come back?
We had many extensive conversations. It wasn’t like, “Yeah,I’m in.” It was like, “No, I’m not doing this, but I’ll listen to you, Kurdt, because you’re a good friend of mine.” So we had a lot of conversations, and it basically boiled down to, because of modern technology, and file sharing, and the Internet, and digital writing tools, it convinced me that it wouldn’t take as much time from my home life as I thought it would. That was the beginning.We took baby steps, and the first one was to see if we could write tunes that were worthy of Metal Church after all these years. We wrote a record together, really loved it, and I decided that I was in and wanted to tour behind it. The way I look at it now is that we’re back in the same boat. We wrote this record with the same mentality. If this wasn’t a record we can be proud of and is as good or better than the last one, we’ll be done. I’m happy to say we feel very good about it, and we’re still here.

Metal Church was always the band that was seemingly on the cusp of great things. You had a record deal with Elektra, and some bigger tours, but things didn’t seem to come together at the same time. Do you look back and think, “We were almost there,” or is it more of a “Yeah, we had a pretty good run.”
Both. We were pretty excited with “The Human Factor” to follow up “Blessing In Disguise.” We had the Operation Rock N’ Roll Tour, but unfortunately, in the music business and the time, that all just didn’t go the way we hoped it would because of several things: the advent of grunge, and1990-91 was a recession period, so the tours weren’t doing so well because the money wasn’t out there. And then the follow-up album (“Hanging In The Balance”)happened, and the record company and management were trying to push me and the band in directions that I wasn’t comfortable with. And forcing an album cover like “Hanging” on me when I said I hated it, but they did it anyhow, those typeof business decisions. We weren’t really in control of our own destiny, so I walked away from all that. I was very proud of what we’d done musically, but I wanted to get out before it sucked my soul completely. (laughs)   

You replaced original vocalist David Wayne, who sang on the first two Metal Church albums. Of the Wayne-era songs, are there any in particular that get you fired up in a live situation?
Oh yeah. Any David Wayne songs we do, we do them because they fire me up. I love those particular songs. And I love other songs from that era that we don’t do because there are a lot of great songs on those two albums. But it’s a difficult problem to have, but a good problem to have when you too much of a good catalog to choose from.

Did it take long for people to accept you when you stepped in for David?
There was very little push-back because of the stylistic differences between Dave’s voice and my voice. We are completely different metal singers. Dave was of the screaming, screeching, ear-splitting metal style, which is awesome; and mine is more of a controlled yelling/growling/operatic type of a voice. I think that because I came in and didn’t try to be the same as David Wayne, it helped me be accepted quite quickly. Having “Blessing In Disguise” as my come-out album helped, too.(laughs)

How long do you see Metal Church continuing?
As long as we’re doing quality work and the fans are there supporting us, I could see it going on for a while. But I just take it one day at a time, one album at a time, one tour at a time, really just try to enjoy it, be in the moment, and live like a 53-year-old man who is a lucky guy to have a second chance at being the singer for Metal Church. That is the most special thing right now for me. I’m ever-so-grateful to Kurdt, the band, and the fans for being able to do this again. LI