Interview with Kevin Heybourne of Angel Witch
Are you an angel witch? Kevin Heybourne, sole remaining founding member of the legendary band, certainly is. Formed in 1978 and with a now-legendary debut album in 1980, Angel Witch has some of the strongest name recognition from the original NWOBHM movement, much of it based on the strength of dark and catchy tracks that just didn’t propel them to the popularity they deserved back in the day.
Years after their original disbanding, Angel Witch reformed and started slowly ramping up activity, with a second modern album titled Angel of Light slated to be released next Friday. Fortunately, Kevin was willing to answer some of my questions about the band.
Angel Witch is moving slowly since reforming, with a seven year delay between albums. What made it the right time to unleash Angel of Light on the world?
Well, we never intended it to take that long. But we never intended it not to, either. There wasn’t really a grand plan and I work at my own pace.
But, looking back, there was a weirdness with our former drummer, which really kicked in on a tour in early 2013, and when you have such negativity in a band, you can be sure nothing creative is going to happen! We had to make some changes to get the whole thing back on track, and by the tail end of 2017 we’d had a good ten months with a solid new line up, and everyone was feeling good, so I just decided it was time to work on new material. When you have a good unit of people who are all pulling in the same direction, it happens a lot easier. I mean, it’s not “easy” to write songs, but it’s a lot better when you have three other guys who are all on the same page.
Has your interest in fantasy and the occult ever wavered in forty years of Angel Witch?
Not really, I’ve always been into reading those sorts of books and watching those kinds of films, but I’m not obsessed with it all; I’m just a child of the seventies I guess, I grew up with all that stuff, and your first love is your first love after all.
Recently, Angel Witch played in Canada. Is there any chance of the band making it to the United States in support of the new album?
We’d like to but it’s not 100% sure at the moment. We certainly will be doing more stuff in Canada, so it may be wise to take the trip across the border if you can get up there.
Angel of Light is being called by some fans the proof that Angel Witch is still, even now, one of the best heavy metal bands in the world. Does the pressure of that expectation and legacy weigh heavily?
“One of the best heavy metal bands in the world,” eh? That’s good to know!
That first album is certainly a heavy burden, which is odd because at the time none of the original band liked it that much, as we felt that it was a bit lightweight and didn’t represent our live sound, and the British press (which was the only press we saw) just hated it. Over time it has become clearer and clearer that is an important record to a lot of people, and now it does feel like it shadows over everything we do.
How did Angel Witch’s partnership with Metal Blade Records come about?
We actually spoke to a lot of labels and had a number of offers to go through but the Metal Blade deal was the most ambitious plan in terms of marketing and cool ideas for getting the word out there, so it made so much sense to go with them. So far it all feels great, in terms of the vibe around the album and the visibility of the band. They are working pretty hard on it all. Which is great, because we worked really hard on the music and recording.
What led to the decision to re-record two songs from the underrated Frontal Assault for the deluxe edition of the album?
We play them in rehearsals (and have played them live once or twice over the last few years), so we bashed through them in the studio, just to get bedded in, and then just carried on working on them as if they were part of the album tracks. It’s always good to have this stuff kicking around in case you can find a use for it…and we did!
Both As Above, So Below and the new record feature material going back to the ‘70s and ‘80s. Is there anything else from back in the day that you’d like to record in the present?
Not really. There are riffs here and there, but nothing which blows me away. Of course, the others might get their hands on an old live tape and try to force me into it. And they might succeed, or not!
If you were to play a live set without anything from the debut in the set list, what songs from your other releases would you want to include?
I think we could make a set from a number of songs we chop and change in and out of our live set. Tracks like Guillotine, Dead Sea Scrolls, Baphomet, Into the Dark, Extermination Day, Dr Phibes, Flight 19 and pretty much any of the tracks from the new album.
Both in the studio and live you’ve alternated between single and dual guitar lineups. What advantages do you find each approach has for Angel Witch?
I think that the power-trio line up is great fun, and you can be more creative as a guitar player as you don’t have to be so locked in with another guitarist, but in terms of translating recorded music to a live audience—it’s two guys all the way. Certainly with what we’re doing; the harmonies and chordal textures over riffs and all that stuff. I suppose that over the years my songwriting has become a bit more disciplined and less free-form, so it works better the way we have it now.
There has been more than one best-of compilation that only takes songs from Screamin’ n’ Bleedin’ and Frontal Assault. Is there anything you’d change about those two records today? How do you feel about them thirty years later?
I don’t really care for those records. They had some good ideas, some good songs even, but the direction we took was not really what Angel Witch was about, and the production, if you can call it that? Forget it! Maybe we should have called the band something else at that point? I don’t know, I try not to think about those albums too much.
Do you have any particular favorites from the various songs that didn’t make it onto full lengths? As an example, the exclusive ones from song of the early singles, or “Baphomet” from the Metal For Muthas compilation.
Well, there is a demo that has an arrangement of ‘Loser’ on it which is pretty killer!
As a follow-up, given the recent release of Seventies Tapes compiling the pre-album demos, are there any plans for a comprehensive anthology of the non-album recordings?
I don’t see that happening really. I mean, those demos belong to me, because I paid for them. But a lot of the non-album stuff is owned by various labels, or the BBC or whatever, so it’s not so simple. Also, it’s all out there in various forms, so everything can be tracked down and owned if you want it!
What’s different about where Angel Witch is at now versus where Angel Witch was at with As Above, So Below?
We’re more solid now. In terms of playing and just the way the personalities get on well within the band. We’re enjoying playing together now—which helps everything along in a way which really should not be underestimated. To me As Above, So Below was the sound of a band trying to find its feet. But the new one is just a recording of four guys who have already done that and are in the pocket with each other. It’s so much more confident.
Is there any consideration for the band’s origins and history that goes into the studio in terms of choosing guitar tones or mix styles, or is everything chosen to fulfill a vision for the music?
Yeah, sure. While I really don’t want to go back and just do a pastiche of my past, I am in a band with guys who grew up with that first Angel Witch album and are totally into all the music I was listening to at the time I was writing that stuff, and we’d all be disgusted if someone started trying to trigger the drums into some 2019 typewriter sound, you know? So it’s just natural for us to use my old amp for the guitars and Fredrik’s old Ludwig is a 70’s heavy rock kit. We just record how we sound, really.
How did you meet and decide to record with James Atkinson?
Will knows him pretty well, he’s in that band Gentleman’s Pistols who he worked with at Rise Above. Fredrik had toured with them when he was in Witchcraft and got on well with him and Bill Steer did say “he’s your guy” a couple of times, so we got him down to a rehearsal and had a couple of beers, and it was good!
Aside from being an engineer he’s also a great songwriter, great singer and great guitar player. That spells “producer” in my book! It was great to work with him. I think he got the best out of us, for sure!
How do you feel about England’s metal scene now compared to where it was when you first started playing in bands?
I don’t really keep up with it to be honest. I know that the live music circuit in general is a lot smaller, people just have so many other options of things to do these days. Which is good, of course, but sad if you have a love of live music as we all do.
What keeps bringing you back to heavy metal?
I don’t know? It’s just what I do. Not even Heavy Metal as such, just Angel Witch—it’s inside me needing to get out. I have to do it, I have no control over that!
Have you had to make any changes singing across the years to maintain your voice, or has it all been natural?
It’s all been natural, but I also wouldn’t say it’s been maintained at all! Recently I have started to look into doing that though. I play guitar all the time and it keeps me sharp—I guess I could do the same with my voice!
Do you have anything else you’d like to say, or promote?
Just thanks for the chat.
And if you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with it—you have earned yourself a nice cup of tea!