Belfast heavyweights Stormzone play a rare hometown gig this coming Saturday, when they headline the PlanetMosh supported ‘Blazefest IV’, an eight-band charity fundraising gig in aid of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Now, as we said, this is one of the few times a year the Storm breaks over Belfast, so what better time to catch up with the band’s charismatic and garrulous frontman John ‘Harv’ Harbinson and find out exactly what is happening in the band camp (sic), starting with their recent mini-tour with Saxon in the north of England and opening for A Pale Horse Named Death in London…
“We had already played with Saxon last year in Dublin and Belfast and forged an instant bond with them. We’re all huge Saxon fans, and it was an honour for us to have them check our performances out on both those nights, and they agreed that the Saxon/Stormzone package was a very compatible one. That was endorsed when we were then invited to play with them again in November, but those dates were cancelled due to Lemmy from Motorhead’s ill health, as Saxon were relying on themselves supporting Motorhead to make that whole tour worthwhile. We lost quite a bit of money due to that, as we had already booked our flights – a disadvantage for [Northern Ireland] bands wanting to tour on the UK mainland is that dastardly stretch of water called the Irish Sea – but the reasons for the cancellation were totally understandable: Lemmy was in pretty bad shape!
“So then we were informed that the dates had been re-scheduled for February 2014! Happy days! But, we decided this time to travel by ferry and van, because that’s something that could be booked much closer to the time – and, with Lemmy’s health still in doubt, there was an air of expectancy for the dates to be cancelled again. This turned out to be the case, Motorhead cancelled, and it appeared [at first] that Saxon would [have to] cancel their own dates too… reluctantly, because fans were already upset about the previous shows being pulled! What fans didn’t seem to understand was that all of Saxon’s crew and equipment is based in Germany, home of their management, and it only made sense for them to go to the expense of bringing them all over if they were also involved in the lengthy Motorhead schedule.
“[Anyway], I rang Biff and we talked about everything and he became intrigued by my suggestion that, if we were coming over by boat with our own backline, then why not have Saxon consider using that and allowing us to help as much as we could in a ‘crew’ capacity! That set the ball rolling for things to be organised and the dates were then confirmed as happening – much to everyone’s delight… even though we knew there was going to be a bit more work involved for us than just hitting the stage and supporting Saxon! It also meant getting a quick dry off and then hitting the stage again to tune up and line check guitars and drums: well, it meant that for most of the band… yours truly wasn’t called into action, so I got off lightly! I did my bit though and bravely manned the bar area for PR purposes, hahaha… and in all honesty this was a series of dates where we definitely sold more CDs than on any other tour!
“So we got there in the end: bands working together and the bond forged even stronger between us to the extent that we’ve been confirmed to be part of a massive tour Saxon have planned for the end of the year!”
Saxon is an understandable choice for a band of your style, and, as you explained, you’ve played with them before: but, APHND is a seemingly different audience altogether… how did they react?
“It wasn’t our choice to open for A Pale Horse Named Death – but choice actually wasn’t something we had! The way things were working out with Saxon they were playing on Monday and Tuesday night then not again until Saturday. It didn’t make sense for us to travel home and back again for the Saturday gig, so we needed a show somewhere in-between to occupy at least one of our three nights off. Saxon are managed by the German company ICS (who are also behind Wacken) and ICS also manage APHND… So, it was arranged that, as unlikely as the partnership may seem, we were to support the doom masters in London on the Thursday night.
“Two members of the band had previously been in Type O Negative, so you can imagine the contrast there was going to be between them and us! But the way we looked at it [was this]: we never got to finish our set in London when we played there with Tesla a few years back, and we obviously weren’t able to fix that on the Sebastian Bach tour, so this was an opportunity to eventually have ‘The Legend Carries On’ booming out over England’s capital for the first time – and, to tell you the truth, we wouldn’t have cared if we’d been supporting One Direction… we just wanted to keep the momentum of the tour going!
“It was awesome turning up to see the guys not a bit interested in us, you know, polite but like ‘who the fuck are these happy bastards?’ But, then we sound-checked and everything changed! The APHND guys jumped out of their changing room and looked on in disbelief at what they were hearing! We were then given a changing room, beer, water and the gesture of having our merch for sale at their counter!! They then watched our whole set when it was showtime and I think if you’re after one word to describe how we felt at the end of the gig it would be, well, ‘triumphant’!
“It’s not easy bursting onto a stage in a half empty venue to people who on first impressions looked like they had brought rope and blades for a mass suicide session, but for 45 minutes any thoughts of such drama left them, and through the course of the Stormzone performance we managed to turn them around to the idea of actually enjoying themselves, obviously wondering what the fuck it was this feeling they were experiencing… but to see the audience swell considerably and witness Type O Negative types throwing their arms in the air during the ‘Death Dealer’ solo section, it was just an amazing feeling knowing we had the determination and desire to beat the odds and deliver a great set to, to tell you the truth, what turned out to be a very receptive London audience! The APHND guys applauded enthusiastically, told us that we had brought them to a really happy place and invited us to their show next night!! Goth and Stormzone combined that brilliant night to produce an unlikely but successful evening’s entertainment and we were very proud of ourselves!”
Of course, you’re continuing to promote the enormously successful ‘Three Kings’ album: are you pleased with the reception the album has received since it was released in the summer?
“Just based on sales alone we are as pleased as punch! The first pressing of the album sold out before Christmas and our record company, Metal Nation, has already sold further copies from a new pressing. Add to that the fact that we have sold almost 600 copies at gigs and by our own means, well, a lot of people have ‘Three Kings’ in their collection right now and it is continuing to sell. That’s also due to the fact that even though it was officially released by the record company in September last year we are constantly getting reviews and interviews each month as if the album was just released, which gets us more exposure and encourages a few more sales. Last month [for example] we received an excellent review in Burrn magazine, Japan’s rock and metal bible! That keeps things truly fresh and relevant, and is actually indicative of the reaction to the album since its release.
“Ninety per cent of the reviews have been fantastic, and even those less glowing haven’t really criticised the album.. more the fact that maybe playing classic heavy metal in 2014 isn’t really going to blow people’s minds: but listen, we know we are not re-inventing any wheels here, and our intention was always just to write and record from the heart and to have that music produced in a huge way by Steve Moore, so that people would listen to it and just go, ‘WOW, where the fuck did that come from’ – and then we can turn around and say to people [that] this music isn’t dated, this music just never went away, and many styles have come and gone over the years to try to bury the spirit of heavy metal and make it look old fashioned, but if you listen to ‘Three Kings’ you’ll hear a modern production on songs that it’s only possible to write if you really mean it, and the lyrics hopefully mean things to people today.
“I’m personally pleased that people are contacting me to let me know that they are getting something from the words, that means everything to me!”
It’s received a huge amount of airplay, particularly in North America: how important is that for a band from Northern Ireland, and particularly playing the style of metal you do, and has it been difficult to get things to this level?
“Well, being known to originate in Northern Ireland is exceptionally important to us… that additional, increasing and important exposure that Stormzone is getting in North America (and beyond) is actually down to a guy from Northern Ireland, Alan Cooke. Alan and I have known each other for a long time and he always promised me that when he settled down in Canada that he would embark on a PR campaign for Stormzone that would elevate our status there. When we released ‘Three Kings Alan was still finding his feet with his company Emerald Media and Marketing (EMM): but when we released the ‘Three Kings’ video all of a sudden I started to see interest from USA and Canadian radio stations, and requests from Central and South America for radio shout outs and interviews… and lo and behold I discovered that Alan was at his work! He had forged ties with some of the most important and influential people in the North American rock radio culture, including Ron Keel (Google him people, this guy is a legend) and the Stormzone profile in the USA exploded!
“We have built up a fantastic relationship with rock and metal fans there through the support we have been given by many outstanding radio stations: it’s a massive nation and extremely difficult to get airplay on stations there, but not only did we achieve that, through Alan’s untiring endeavours we actually topped requests charts, [and] continue to do so, and we’re part of the whole current wave of bands circulating frequently on USA airwaves… and that has extended to Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and many other places where classic heavy metal is the staple diet of fanatical music lovers, and our record company has duly noted that sales of ‘Three Kings’ in those areas have seen an increase: none of that would have been possible if Alan had not got the bit between his teeth and devoted so much time and energy and, to an extent, belief in the boys from Northern Ireland, to bring us to an unexpected level of importance to fans of heavy metal across the Atlantic!”
The reason we’re talking today is because you are headlining Blazefest IV: it’s a very special gig for a very special boy and a very special cause – how did you become involved?
“Well this is Blazefest 4 – and we actually wanted to be involved from the very beginning when Darren did the first show several years ago, but, to tell you the truth, no matter when it was arranged in the previous years we were always committed already to doing a show somewhere else: last year we were in Germany, the year before Spain and the year before that I was actually settling down to living in Spain… but the rest of the guys all went to the gig anyway to show support for the cause, which is undoubtedly a great one and something we are proud this year to eventually be an absolute part of.
“We don’t play too many Belfast shows – and that’s not because we don’t want to play here more often… it’s just that, due to work commitments, I find myself working most weekends: I do solo shows all over Northern Ireland that normally means that prime nights for rock and metal gigs clash with my solo gigs, and I normally organise things to make sure that what Stormzone does abroad can be built into the schedule for the year… but more often than not a great opportunity for the band here in Belfast always coincides with a commitment I have to my “weekend warrior” set.
“But on this occasion, Blazefest was something that there was no way I was going to miss out on this time, mainly because I really wanted to be part of the legacy that Darren is building with his annual dedication to a truly worthy cause through the means of his own love for metal and, most importantly, his family and their heroic efforts in raising finance and awareness of the needs of the sick children department in the Royal Victoria Hospital… all else pales in comparison: the man is tireless in his efforts and the least we can do is to give everything we’ve got towards making what he strives for a great night for everyone who comes along to support the event and everything it stands for!”
How important is it for you for a band with the hometown profile of Stormzone to support causes such as this?
“I guess the importance of our involvement will be decided by the numbers who actually come out to support it! Blazefest, with or without Stormzone, should always be an event that attracts a great audience aware of what the evening is all about, but it will obviously be fantastic for both us and the charity that Darren and Dawn Shields-Pettitt are at the forefront of if the Empire is packed to the rafters. We’ve been involved in charity events before such as the Dio Tribute evening that James Loveday put on for the Cancer Awareness cause, and it’s an honour for us to not only be part of Blazefest but also to be chosen as headliner! Hopefully that faith in us will be repaid by a healthy turn out all gathering to support the bands involved and, therefore, this fantastic annual gesture that Darren and Dawn have created in aid of sick children in the Royal Hospital.”
It’s quite a diverse bill, which includes two other acts – Worldsend and Altus – who are signed to your management roster, Blink: you’ve played with both of those bands before, so apart from them who else are you looking forward to seeing on the day?
“The three bands sandwiched in between Worldsend and Altus are all magnificent additions to this billing: Sandstone and Maverick we have also had the pleasure of playing with in the recent past and Baleful Creed are now getting some of the attention in the USA that boosted the Stormzone profile there. I haven’t actually seen them live yet but I’ve heard a lot of great reports about them so I’m looking forward to seeing what’s creating this buzz!
“I think it’s brilliant that a line-up like Blazefest IV can be put together with so many local bands of an exceptionally high calibre, the scene here in Northern Ireland is just so healthy at the moment and when you think of the other great bands not on the bill who are also from here – bands such as Million Dollar Reload [currently on tour with Blackberry Smoke], Trucker Diablo, Triggerman and Conjuring Fate etc. – well, maybe next year Darren is going to have to look towards making Blazefest V a two day event!”
I’d like to go back to the ‘Three Kings’ album and one aspect of it which is perhaps not so widely known outside your most loyal fanbase, and that is the fact that you did all the artwork yourself: how did that scenario come about?
“There were a couple of factors involved in this decision. First of all it’s an exceptionally expensive thing to get great artwork from established artists for use as CD covers. Most of the time a lot of money is spent on an image and you don’t even get the original painting, just a guaranteed licence to be able to use an image without it being used by another band! And then there’s the fact that you usually have to choose an image that already exists and you just hope goes with the theme of the album and, importantly, the title!
“With ‘Three Kings’ I really had an idea in my head about where I wanted the imagery and atmosphere of the cover to take you, and I couldn’t find that with any of the artists who at that time had images available. I really wanted people to get an idea of our heritage, to get right away that this band might just be from Northern Ireland so there had to be some hint of celtic visuals. ‘Three Kings’, the song, is a story which extends the legend of a character called ‘Death Dealer’ who has featured on all our albums: the character is controlled by a warrior’s helmet from which he gains all his strength and desire to kill, and on the ‘Three Kings’ song the helmet was divided into three crowns and given to three princes, but the helmet’s desire for unification brought the three to war when they became Kings of their own regions and the outcome would determine whether or not Death Dealer would rise again.
“There’s no way I could have imagery like that in my head and then expect someone else to re-create what I was imagining, and as an artist myself I eventually decided to tackle the commission myself and the results pretty much turned out as I wanted them to. Plus it was a lot less expensive to keep everything in-house!”
Are you likely to continue doing the band’s artwork, or will you take that on an album-by-album approach?
“I think it will be difficult now for me now to not commit to at least the next couple of albums for artwork, mainly because I like the idea of the images from now on being consistent. When you look at an Iron Maiden album, you can tell right away that the same artist has been doing the covers, and like them I’ll create a new concept with each cover but approach it in the same style. I do a lot of artwork throughout the year and albums are recorded every 18 months or so from each other, so there’ll be nothing standing in my way when SZ 5 is ready to have a cover painted!”
Tell us a bit about the song ‘Coming Home’, which is not on the ‘Three Kings’ album, but has been released only in North America and on YouTube: what’s the background to the song, and how come it was released in such a way?
“’Coming Home’ was actually written during the writing period for the ‘Three Kings’ album, and was amongst 20 or so original songs from which we had to choose 12 to concentrate on in the studio. When ‘Coming Home’ never made it we actually hadn’t given it the full studio treatment and at the time it was felt that it may have been a little too ‘hard rock’ for an album that was going to be classed predominantly as ‘heavy metal’. In October last year we became involved with Alan and EMM in North America, and he quickly got us established on many USA, Canadian and South American radio stations: Alan suggested that it would be a real gesture for the band to repay the support and commitment of all the great radio stations who were now playing Stormzone songs on a regular basis by recording a new song that no one had ever heard before and giving it to the stations as an absolute exclusive.
“We were going to write a song when we looked back at several of the ones that didn’t make the ‘Three Kings’ album. Something just jumped out at us about ‘Coming Home’ enough for us to record it in full and properly, and I’ve never been so happy that we did that because the results were fantastic and that’s an opinion shared by most of those who have heard it. The lyrics are basically about being away from loved ones in uncomfortable or hostile environments, maybe through work commitments, or even to be with someone you’ve fallen in love with, but always vowing to return to where you belong and the thought of doing so and being with everyone you care for seeing you through difficult times. The video for the USA version of the song featured US troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., and surprising their families once they’re home: it’s a very emotional and uplifting video and has went down exceptionally well everywhere. We’re hoping to do a video for it which will be more relevant to UK families: that should be happening later this year.
“It’s amazing that this song was going to be consigned to the ‘demos only’ department until it saw the light of day and has now become a major part of our latest progress, even making it into our live set from time to time!”
Of course, as you’ve just hinted at, fans in the UK will be able to get their hands on it soon, as it is going to be included on a very special compilation album planned for release over the summer…
“Another worthy cause and [again] very close to our hearts, and the song itself definitely lends itself to the concept behind the project, which is called ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’, and is a CD featuring 12 songs by 12 bands, all of whom are contributing something not previously available on any other recording. It will be sold in aid of Cancer Research, and aims to bring awareness of the dangers of cancer to as many people [in the rock and metal community] as possible, and get across the message that screening and early diagnosis should definitely be in order to have a chance against it. Myself and the rest of the Stormzone guys – and every other band who has come on board – just loved the idea and ‘Coming Home’ is a totally relevant song to the cause behind this fantastic enterprise because it is all about the subject of awareness and a message hitting or, well, ‘coming’ home!”
So, what’s next for Stormzone? I understand there are some more mainland shows coming up – although maybe you can’t talk about these just yet…
“No, everything we have planned is pretty much out in the open… This really is going to be a year when we concentrate more on the live side of things – getting out there and getting the name about much more on the road. We’ve already got the Saxon shows under our belts: all those dates were sold out so we got to play to quite a few people in a short space of time – the Preston show had over 1,000 people at it, so that’s 1,000 more knowing that Stormzone exists!
“We’re doing a few local shows, the obvious one being this weekend’s Blazefest and Easter Monday sees us headlining the Diamond Rock Club’s annual Metalfest. After that we’re off to Scotland in May for a short tour, which includes shows in Glasgow and Edinburgh: one of those shows as special guests to a fantastic band called Eden’s Curse.
“In June and July we have something very special lined up: it definitely is something I can’t talk about until an official announcement is made, but I guarantee you association with what’s in store will really put Stormzone on the map! And, of course, then we have the tour with Saxon lined up for the end of the year – a series of dates that potentially takes in 40 shows around all of Europe during October and November!
“Other than that we are currently recording a some songs which will appear on a special digital download format later this month – hopefully to coincide with St Patrick’s Day… so that’s a little hint as to what people can expect! They are not new songs, just ones taken from the last three albums and given a little bit of unusual treatment.
“There are several other things in the pipeline. Our manager Steve Simms works tirelessly to get us great opportunities, and some just come along unexpectedly, so it’s definitely a case of an already busy year guaranteed to become even busier!”
- Blazefest takes place at the Empire Music Hall this Saturday (March 8), with the first band on stage at 5.30pm. Tickets cost £10 and will be available on the door.