Interviews > Grave Digger
Grave Digger
Interview by Athena Schaffer

Once again Grave Digger don their kilts, paint themselves with woad, and charge like berzerkers through the mists of time to the blood-splattered heather of the Scottish Highlands. Their new album, The Clans Will Rise Again (Napalm Records) features musicianship as sharp as a Claymore while simultaneously pulverizing with the intensity of a rage-wielded Battle Hammer.

Hailing from Germany, the band welcomes a new member this time around: Domain guitarist/backing vocalist Axel Ritt who indeed injects new blood into the mix. Axel joins vocalist Chris Boltendahl, bassist Jens Becker, drummer Stefan Arnold, and keyboardist Hans Peter “H.P.” Katzenburg.

2011 is proving to be an exciting year for the band – they’re not only touring intensively for The Clans Will Rise Again – including first-ever visits to places like Russia and the Ukraine – but they’ll also be releasing a very exciting, memorable DVD of their 30th Anniversary Celebration, which took place at last year’s Wacken Open Air Festival.

But back to the album itself. The band has already filmed a video for the excellent song “Highland Farewell”, as well as an in-depth behind-the-scenes look in the Making Of video.

The band infuses the distinct, haunting sound of bagpipes along with the gravelly vox, double bass, militaristic and thundering percussion, and razor-sharp guitars as they take us through the mists of time to the times of Scottish heroes like William Wallace and Robert The Bruce and other heroes who gave their lives for Scotland the Brave.

The Crowgrrl caught up with Axel by phone last October.

I’ve been dying to talk to you guys! But when your Ballads of a Hangman album came out, you weren’t doing interviews.

They didn’t?! As you might know I’ve only been with the band now for one year, so I don’t know what they did before I was part of the band.

How did you join Grave Digger?

You might have noticed one year ago Manni Schmidt left the band. Chris is an old friend of mine, we’ve known each other for about 20 years. We met several times on the business scene because he did some promotion stuff with his company, and I am the owner of a music production company and label. I’ve worked together with him on business stuff but never on the musical stuff.

So he got 3 or 4 guys on the list who would be able to do the rest of the shows for 2009 because there were already some shows booked. He needed one guy who was working as a fire worker to do these shows. He asked me if I would be able to do them and if I would be willing to do them. I had only 2 weeks to learn the complete songs of the live performance of the guys’. It went well, and at the end of the year they asked me if I wanted to be a permanent member of the band. I said, “Yeah! Great!”

Very cool! Are you still with Domain as well?

Yes, I’m still with Domain. At the moment, most of the time went with Grave Digger because there’s so much work to do for the live performance. Of course, for the Wacken Open Air Festival a few months ago. As soon as there will be some more time, I will be starting with the songwriting for the new Domain album as well.

You certainly keep busy, don’t you?!

Yes, I’m pretty busy! I’ve got typically 90 hours a week working. Besides these two bands, like I said, I’m a label owner, I’ve got a publishing company, and I’ve got a music production company. And as you know I’m always on Facebook and Myspace the whole day through. So, there’s always a lot of work to do.

Well, Facebook and Myspace are excellent tools for promotion.

They are, definitely! Especially at the moment, and there will be more in the future. I’m pretty sure about that because the connection between artists and fans will be more direct. That’s one of the main platforms where you can do this kind of promotion. I’m not that sure of how it will end in the end, but this will be the future, of course.

Grave Digger had always had a policy that they would never do e-mail interviews – only by phone or live. But with your huge presence online, it seemed strange that there were no e-mailed interviews!

[Laughter!] That’s one of the priorities for Chris. He hates e-mail interviews! He always said if it takes that long to write down the stuff, it would be much faster to actually speak to the people. To be honest, I much prefer e-mail. But as you see, it works out in both directions.

One thing I’m curious about. A lot of Grave Digger albums have been set in Arthurian times or in Scotland like the current album. But the band is from Germany. Why the fascination with the U.K.?

That’s a good question! The band has been asked that question many times. To be honest, I’m not that sure because as I told you, I’m just in the band one year now. The thing is in the early days, one of the former bass players, Tomi Göttlich was a history teacher. As far as I know, he was the main influence for the historical stuff used in Tunes of War. Tunes of War has been the most successful album of the band.

We sat together one year ago around Xmas time in a pub and we discussed how we should work on the new album. I said, “Hey, guys, maybe as the new member and as an outstanding eye at the moment – most of the fans when they hear the name Grave Digger, they think about Tunes of War. And even the website says Grave Digger Clan. Why not do one more album with a little bit about Scotland again? Not a rip-off, but something similar regarding instruments, regarding songs and stuff like that.”

The first reaction was, “Oh, no. We’re not doing stuff like that once again because I’m not sure if we can do that one more time.” So I said, “Eh, just think about it!”

After 2 days, all of the members said, “Yeah, it’s a good idea. It’s a better idea than we thought at first glance.”

But I don’t know exactly why. In Scotland, there are a special kind of people. It’s a special land. There’s a special impression when you visit the land. All the members of the band get a deep feeling for that land. But why? I’m sorry, I don’t know.

When I first heard this album, I thought of Braveheart but doing further research into songs like “Spide” - that was set in Bannockburn, which happened after William Wallace. (The album itself is a history lesson!) The album stayed true to that time period that happened after William Wallace.

Yeah. The main thing is all the lyrics were done by Chris directly. 95% of the music has been done by [Jens?], the bass player, and me, and all of the lyrics have been done by Chris.

As far as I know, he thinks about the main concept. When the concept is done, I think he’s going to listen to his heart with what his heart is telling him to sing about. When he’s in the mood to sing one more time about the people in Scotland, maybe the feelings in Scotland and the land all in all. I think that would be the main reason he is doing lyrics like that. But to be honest, that is a question you have to ask him directly.

You said that you and Jens write most of the music. Do you do that first or does Chris come up with the lyrics first?

It started with a collection of riffs. Chris told me he would like to get a lot of guitar riffs but not complete songs. Let’s call it “parts”. Maybe a chorus part, a verse, or a bridge or whatever. But not complete songs.

For me this was totally new because in Domain I was used to putting the complete songs together. Go and show it to the rest of the band, and talk to them about how about this, how about that, should we change this or should we change that? But 80% of the complete song was written.

This time he only wanted me to compose riffs. So I stood up in front of my iMac and in front of my camera and all the riffs I got in my mind I performed in front of my computer, then sent them as small videos so he could decide in advance of the complete songwriting what would be fine for Grave Digger and what would not fit with the band. We threw away 50%, We had 40 riffs still left so with these 40 riffs we entered the rehearsal studio. Then Jens came up with his riffs and we put them together. Then we started to play. “Oh, this could be a nice verse. This could be a nice chorus. This could be a nice lead part.”

So we started putting it all together. It was like putting the parts together – totally different parts. It was completely new for me but it was very interesting as well. While we were putting the parts together, Chris was sitting in the back listening to it and he got his first ideas. “This could be something about this feeling. This could be more like a war or a fight or whatever.” He got his notebook and was writing down stuff – maybe some lyrics, some lines.

So we put it all together step by step. But I think the guitar riffs were the main thing in front of me.

Yeah. And they were absolutely fantastic! Especially in “Highland Farewell”! The title track, “The Clans Will Rise Again”, that song is absolutely Ominous! Did you have that feeling when you were coming up with the riffs for that one?

Yeah, because the main riffs for that were written by Jens. The shredding stuff and the fast stuff was mainly written by me, but Jens has a totally different style of playing guitar. He’s more into these heavy grooves stuff, the slower ones. So this main riff was written by him. It was one of our favorites when we voted together. Maybe that’s the reason why it’s the title track. I’m not sure, but we liked it a lot!

“Execution” runs the gamut from gloomy to absolutely furious. It’s one of the most different songs on the album. How did you come up with that one?

The main riff was in front of the song. After the song, we composed the intro, the clean stuff. So it went the opposite way.

So it went from furious to gloomy.

Right! We changed the order of it.

You guys have already filmed a video for “Highland Farewell”?

Yeah.

How did that go? Any fun stories behind the filming?

There is a “Making Of.” Have you seen it on Youtube? There are two Making Of’s. One was a very easy one – it was done by me with my iPhone. I was running around and getting on the nerves of the guys because I’m a big iPhone fan, and I was filming while they were fooling around or performing or whatever. While we were flying back to Germany, I was sitting on the plane and doing the rearrangements or the little cuts and overdubs. Only on the iPhone can you do stuff like that! Then I would upload it for the fans so they can smile a little and get some backstage interest. So that was the easy one.

There’s a professional one done by a film crew. Both are on Youtube on the Grave Digger channel. You can watch them all over there. It’s pretty funny because we’ve been in England. We were filming in England about Scottish history. That was a little weird. There was a little problem because all the actors were English including the guys who were playing the Scottish people. But they’ve got no problems anymore. After 100 years or so all these things are gone. Now they can laugh about it. But the older people, they’re still a little bit, “Don’t talk about the English!” or “Don’t talk about the Scots!”.

Then you have the Irish over there, too, which is a totally different ballgame.

That’s a third thing, yes. I have a nice story where the girlfriend of mine ordered whiskey. She is Scottish, and she was in this bar in Ireland when we were on tour there. She totally went crazy! “This is not whiskey! It’s crap!” And I told her, “You know who invented whiskey? It was the Irish!” Then the whole day was gone, believe me!

But I’m sorry! That’s what it is! The oldest whiskey in the world is Irish whiskey. Try telling that to a Scottish girl! Then the day is done.

There’s something like that in America, too, isn’t there? The North against the South?

Maybe a little. Especially if you’re from the North and you go down South.

Which part are you from?

The North.

Maybe I should ask someone from the South about that.

Yeah, and you’ll get a whole different story! Do you have a personal favorite song on the new album?

Yeah. To be honest, I’m a Pop guy. I love this Popstars and all this cool stuff. That being said, one of my favorites is “The Highland Farewell” because maybe it’s a little of a Pop song for Grave Digger. And for the guitar stuff, I’m a big fan of “Spider” because it’s the most furious guitar solo on the album. And I’m a very big fan of “Who The Gods Love Die Young” because it’s very heavy stuff, upsetting stuff...

Yeah, that one is CHILLING!

Yeah! These are my three favorites I think.

Bagpipes. Who does the bagpipes on the album?

We got a German friend of ours who did some bagpipes in the past as well. He did the bagpipes in the studio. They are real bagpipes! It’s funny because we had worked in some keys, but the bagpipes had some little problems. I did do bagpipe arrangements with H.P. Katzenburg, the keyboard player. We wrote down the notes but we made a little mistake because we wrote down the notes for an Irish bagpipe. Our friend uses a Scottish bagpipe, and they’re different regarding the notes they’re able to play. So we have to do some tricks to put it all together.

All and all, in the end it went well. But it was a lot more difficult than I thought in advance because I did a lot of orchestral arrangements, some classical stuff. So I thought a bagpipe would not be much more difficult.

Famous last words!

Yeah. We’re working on that.

Yeah! [Laughter] It can’t be that difficult. Mm-hmmm. The guy called me: “What the Hell did you write down?!” “Why?” “That’s an Irish bagpipe!” “Sorry! I didn’t know!” The song was already written and composed, so what do we do now?! But it was fun!

So how do you pull that off Live? Do you actually bring the bagpiper with you? Or do you just use recordings?

I’m pretty sure we’ll be doing it by keyboards. The original samples will be used. It would be little bit too heavy to put one more guy on the road for only 1 or 2 songs. I’m pretty sure we’re going to do it by samples. !

This current tour has you going to Russia and the Ukraine? How difficult is it to tour there?

I’m not the right guy to answer this question because I’ve never been there. It will be the first time I’ve ever performed in Russia – I’m very curious about that. I’m sure it will be different. There will be some parts that are totally different to Europe (or at least to some points of Europe). But I know the fans are awesome over there. They’re very much into true heavy metal. I’m pretty sure this will be the main part.

Some guys told me that the technical part in Russia will be a little different. And I’m pretty sure this will be. But the fans will do the job. I’m pretty sure about that. After Russia, of course, will be the European tour. There are will be some Eastern European countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, for example. I’ve never played there before. There are a lot of countries I’ve never performed before so I’m happy to do this now.

I noticed most of your dates booked are in Europe. What about the U.S., Japan, Australia, South America?

Yes, we’re working on that but it’s a little too early to say this will be done. I hope there will be a US tour because I’ve never been in the U.S. before. Never, ever before!

You haven’t?!

No! Every time I planned to do it, it didn’t work out or I had to do something different or whatever. And it didn’t.

So this will be the very first chance to do both: to visit the country (because I’m very curious as well) , and to perform in the country. We’re working on some Japan dates, we’re working on some US dates, but this depends on the booker and the management. As long as they tell me “This will be then and there” , I’m not able to tell something about that.

Your live set for the current tour – is that mainly from The Clans Will Rise Again, or just a few songs from that and the rest from your backlog or what?

I think the second one because there’s a big back catalog for a band like Grave Digger and a history of about 30 years, the only thing you can do is like what AC/DC does: a Best Of. And, of course, everybody has a different opinion of what’s the Best Of.

So I’m sure there will be 4 or 5 songs off the new album, and the rest the best titles of – maybe one song off the other albums. We could perform for 3 hours, and there will still be some vans who say, “Why didn’t you play This song?” Always! And that’s the same way with every band in the scene for that long a time. The only thing we can do is to give the people what they expect, but I’m pretty sure that if you play at least 8 hours, there’s still some things missing, I’m sure! But I think there will be 1 or 2 songs from every album.

OK. I just interviewed Doro Pesch this week. She’s getting ready to put out the DVD of her 25th Anniversary Show. You guys were on that, weren’t you?

Only Chris did a short appearance as far as I know. He did some guest vocals on one song, but not the whole band. You didn’t know? You didn’t check Youtube?

No. I don’t get a chance to explore Youtube. When I’m on the computer I’m either writing or trying to catch up on some e-mails.

We’ve got this big Anniversary Show at the Wacken Open Air Festival. The biggest festival in the world and all. This year I think we have the biggest line up ever! There are only 2 bands missing; AC/DC, and Metallica. Besides that, we’ve got Iron Maiden, Slayer, Alice Cooper, Motley Crue. You name it! Whoever is in Metal has performed there. We are in the middle of them and are doing our 30th Anniversary Show.

We performed the complete Tunes of War album, including a big bagpipe orchestra – 30 people doing the intro. It was awesome! It was absolutely incredible! We had two guest singers: we had Doro Pesch doing a ballad in a classical, historical dress. You have to see it! She looks performed like William Wallace of Braveheart, like Mel Gibson.

We had a guest performance by Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian, also dressed in a kilt. We had Van Canto– the a capella Metal band – doing all the backing vocals; six people in the back. It was awesome! There are some videos you can watch from Grave Digger: Wacken 2010. The complete show has been recorded for DVD which will be released in March, 2011, along with the upcoming tour. That’s a really big event 100,000 people in front of you all singing the complete album. It was awesome!

A DVD was going to be my next question. OK, so what kind of bonus features are you going to have on it?

We did a recording – we did 2 songs with a new recording. One’s called “The Rebellion” which we performed with Hansi Kursch as we did at Wacken as well. And we did the “Ballad of Mary” with Doro. So I’m pretty sure these two titles, these new tracks will be on the DVD as well. And some more bonus stuff as well – for example, the iPhone videos I did in the last year, running around in the world doing some stuff, and of course, some pictures and some other stuff.

It’s not a complete concert film. It’s more of a collection, with pictures of Scotland as well put into the concert. I’m not sure how it’s really going to be in the end, but it’s not a typical concert film. It’s a collection of different stuff. But the main thing will be the Wacken show, of course.

I can’t wait to see it! And I’ll definitely go to Youtube to check out what’s on there.

Do it! Of course, most of them are filmed with bad quality, but 2 or 3 of them have a real good quality so you get a good impression of what went on at Wacken Open Air. It was awesome! I’m absolutely sure this is the biggest event of the band ever, and the biggest event I’ve had personally as well. It was great! Really great!

Awesome! Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d want to tell our readers about Grave Digger?

No, I think you asked the right questions; everything’s perfect.