For the better part of two decades, Seattle's awe-inspiring NEVERMORE have grown into one of Metal's most respected and influential institutions, pioneering and perfecting an unclassifiable blend of subgenres that is often imitated but never equaled.
I recently sat down with iconic frontman Warrel Dane to plumb his fevered brain for thoughts on a wide array of topics. On the menu tonight were his passionate lyrics, his former band SANCTUARY, the current state of Metal (and of the world at large), and of course, NEVERMORE's past, present, and future.
Lovely merchandise vendor (and temporary fill-in bassist) Dagna Barrera and touring second guitarist Attila Voros were also present.
How's the tour going so far?
"It's going great so far. Last night in New York was kinda off the hook! It was really fun. Because normally in places like L.A. and New York, you get the "musician crowd" that just sits there like this [strikes a hilariously boring pose] and watches you, but they were going pretty apeshit in New York. They were definitely singing the songs louder than in any city we've played in the U.S. so far, so that kinda tripped me out."
This is a Canadian show. In all these years of touring, have you noticed any significant difference between Canadian crowds and American crowds?
"Umm, usually Canadian metalheads are a little more intense and a little more passionate about their Metal. They're not more concerned with whatever the trendy 'Nu-Metal band of the month' is, compared to what the American scene is like. Although that's changed a little bit because MTV doesn't show music anymore, so the Nu-Metal thing has kind of died down there. But unfortunately, LIMP BIZKIT is back together, so… They should play LIMP BIZKIT records in poison control centers to induce vomiting. [laughs]"
The Metal scene has undergone a lot of changes and developments in the past decade or so, especially in North America. Do you like where Metal is going and continuing to go?
"Well, there are a lot of bands that I like. I mean, I love MACHINE HEAD, I love TESTAMENT, I like a lot of Bay Area bands. DEATH ANGEL… I know I'm missing a bunch that I like from the States, but there are really good bands here. For a long time, it seemed like anyone from Scandinavia would sell mass amounts of tickets whenever they'd come through town, and that's kind of dying out a little bit, that whole trend. So it's going to be kind of interesting to see what happens next. Obviously, there are still bands from Scandinavia, from Europe, that pull in big numbers when they play here, but something's going to change in the next couple years. We'll see what happens. [coughs]"
You all right there, dude?
"Oh yeah. [laughs] We are on a rolling Petri dish, you know that, right? Stick around here long enough, and you'll be hackin' in a few days."
That's good to know! I'll know who to blame. Since you brought up the Bay Area bands, there's obviously been a massive resurgence in the Thrash movement. A few years ago, could you have foreseen that? Did you ever imagine that this would happen? Because I didn't.
"I may have hoped, because that's the shit I grew up listening to, so… bands like WARBRINGER and BONDED BY BLOOD, they're doing the Thrash thing, and there's nothing wrong with that! Makes ME happy."
Moving along to NEVERMORE, "The Obsidian Conspiracy" is your first studio album in five years. I suppose the big question on everyone's mind is, why so long?
"Well, it may seem like a long time to some people, but we toured for about two and a half years after that record ['This Godless Endeavor', 2005] came out. At that point, any family - which you eventually become when you're in a band long enough - gets sick of each other. You need a break. So I decided I was going to do a solo record, and of course Jeff [Loomis, guitarist] decided he was going to do a solo record. Then we put out a DVD. So it's not like any of us were inactive; we were always releasing things that were at least band-related. And once that was all done, Jeff and I got back together and started writing the new record."
Do you feel that the writing process for this record differed in any significant way from past records?
"Not really. We always kind of do it the same way."
And how do you approach it lyrically?
"I just kind of let the music dictate whatever vibe is going to happen with the lyrics. And sometimes it's affected by whatever I'm reading at the time, or if I'm watching too many soap operas on Channel 4… That's kind of a joke. [laughs] But yeah, we've written songs in different ways many times. Because I'm constantly writing lyrics all the time. I keep journals, and if something comes in my head, I'll write it down. Now that I have one of these fancy gadgets, [holds up iPhone] all I gotta do is just do a voice memo or type it in, which is kind of easier. I have terrible handwriting that sometimes I can't read. But yeah, normally the music comes first… there were a couple times when we had songs that were completely lyrically done, and I had all the melodies planned out. One of those was 'Garden Of Grey' off the first record ['Nevermore', 1994]. And I just sat down with Jeff and hummed it to him. I sang along and said, "just play whatever you think you need to play." Sometimes that works. In that case it did work. There have been a few times when it failed miserably."
Do you have any favorite songs that came together by accident?
"Nothing really comes together by accident. But 'This Godless Endeavor' is the one song we've done that I'm probably the most proud of. However, it's not on my favorite record. My favorite record would be 'Dreaming Neon Black',  But everybody's got their favorite."
What makes "Dreaming Neon Black" special for you?
"'Cause it's a real story. It's not fiction, or fictionalized whatsoever. ['Dreaming Neon Black' is a concept album about a haunted man's obsession over the mysterious disappearance of a former love] I just wish the ending would've come to conclusion before the record was actually done, 'cause we didn't find out where her body was, or get confirmation of her death for a few years after the record was already out. And it turned out exactly how I thought it did. She was drowned in a lake somewhere, and they found her husband buried somewhere in New Mexico… And it was a very personal story. But for me, I like… I don't know if it's a good thing that I write about personal stuff all the time, but usually it's cathartic for me."
I think most people would agree. I think that's why a lot of us do what we do, whether it's writing and playing music, or writing stories or poetry.
"Some of my favorite parts of that record are the lyrics that aren't actually in the songs, that I used as segways in between them. It was to explain the story a little better."
Have you approached that level of personal involvement on any other records?
"Only my solo record. There are a couple songs on there… That song about my brother was so difficult for me to even record. You know, singing about family issues is not easy, and I don't have a good relationship with my brother. Never have. Always wanted one, though. I'm very close to my three sisters. There's another song on that record called 'This Old Man' that was pretty personal. When I was a little kid - I was maybe five years old - I used to go visit this old guy with my mom. His wife had passed away and all his kids were gone, and he used to tell me stories about when he was growing up, and in the Navy, and all this crazy stuff. It's just something I'll never forget."
Can we anticipate you playing those songs live in the future?
"I did a brief solo tour which was only a couple weeks, but Jeff and I are not going to play solo stuff in NEVERMORE sets. But we are both doing solo records again."
When can we expect those?
"Good question. It's all about time management right now, and multitasking - for me, anyway. 'Cause we're pretty busy at the moment, and it doesn't look like we're going to slow down anytime soon, but there are a couple months where we're not gonna be doing anything towards the end of the year, and hopefully we can pull everything together and maybe start recording."
Speaking of side projects, I understand you're working with SANCTUARY again.
"Yep. Jeff's involved with that too. He's not going to be doing any of the writing, but he's gonna do the few live shows that we do have planned, and there are only actually two at this point. We are going to do another record, and I don't know how far it'll go after that, but we'll see. Years ago, I said I would never ever fucking do this. SANCTUARY were not good friends when we split up. We were on very bad terms. And years later, you grow up, you see each other again, and we got to be friends again. I remembered the fact that Lenny [Rutledge] was such a good songwriter and guitar player, and he wasn't really doing music anymore, and I kinda felt like 'You know what? He fuckin' really needs to do something again!' And then his girlfriend was like "Yes he does, please! Make him start playing electric guitar again!" [laughs] I think she prodded him a little in that direction too, which was cool. And then the thing that sealed the deal was when I heard the new songs he was writing. I was like, 'Fuck! I really can't deny this shit; it's really good!' And I immediately got inspired. If it hadn't been good music, it wouldn't be happening."
Speaking of moving on from SANCTUARY and into NEVERMORE, I heard a story a number of years ago about a lot of pressure to go Grunge. As a Metal musician, did it ever feel awkward hailing from the Grunge capital of the nation?
"That was some really stupid record company executive. But it was weird; I got to see a few of my friends, whom I'd known for years, suddenly become big rock stars. At that time in Seattle, Metal turned into a dirty word. If you were in a Metal band, the 'scenester' people there - and the people that were playing in some of these bands that got really popular - completely looked down on anyone that played Metal. Now, I have a good story about this bar I used to work in. I was hanging out there, and I was talking to this girl, and we had a couple drinks, and I thought "She's kinda cool," and eventually she said 'Are you in a band?' I said yeah. 'What kind of music do you play?' I said 'Umm… Metal.' [laughs] She said - literally! - 'And you fucking ADMIT that?' And that's when I said, 'Bitch, leave my bar now!' And I kicked her and her friend out of the bar. Never saw her again. [laughs] That's what the mentality was back then in Seattle with some people. But the thing is, the media knew that there was a big Metal scene there, and just completely ignored it and focused on one small faction of the scene. I mean, there was Jazz music, there were Rock bands, there were Metal bands… Grunge was not the only thing going on back then, but the media didn't want anyone to know that. It was an odd time, but we persevered through that. We kept doing what we wanted to do, and we're still here, and most of those hipster bands aren't."
The last laugh is always sweetest.
"But of course now, everyone's reuniting. The only one that I think is valid - although I haven't heard any new SOUNDGARDEN songs - but I do really love the new ALICE IN CHAINS record. They were always the most 'Metal' of any of the bands that came from that whole thing, and that's why they were always my favorite."
I'm actually a little shocked; I knew the '90s were not very friendly to Metal, but I had no idea that it went that far.
"I'm not sure if it was really that bad outside of Seattle. It was so crazy, because at one point you'd go out to a bar - and I've lived there my whole life - and suddenly I didn't know anyone anymore. They were all moving from California, because they all thought their band was gonna get signed if they moved to Seattle. And by the time the trend hits, it's over, and no other bands are going to get signed. A lot of people don't realize that. But it took 'em a few years, and then they all went back home. Nothing against people from California, but… there was some bullshit that happened too when people were moving up to Seattle from California to work for Microsoft. If you had California plates, the vandalism rate on cars was something like 75% higher than if you had Washington plates. So there were a lot of local people that were mad that Californians were taking their jobs from Microsoft… But who'd want to work for satan anyway? [laughs]"
Speaking of satan, NEVERMORE has stuck with the same record label since the beginning. Are you happy to have found a home with Century Media?
"Well, we've had our ups and downs with them, to be honest, and I've been vocal about that at times. But we have a very good relationship with them now. They treat us very well, probably because we're one of their biggest selling bands, but I remember what it was like being a young band on that label. I guess there's a reason they treat you differently if you sell more records. But right now, we're fine with them. They're doing a great job for us. We lost our publicist that we've had for years and I'm kind of sad about that 'cause he was so awesome, but he just quit."
Are you impressed by that label's current roster?
"I am. I love that TRIPTYKON record, absolutely love it. Took me a while to get into it, 'cause it's so intense. I mean, it sounds like CELTIC FROST, but… kinda not really… you have to listen to it front to back, for sure."
Do you feel optimistic about heavy music in general?
"I do. I think it goes through waves of popularity where it gets cool, then not so cool, gets un-hip, then it gets super popular… I mean, there are still some bands that I would rather have painful dental surgery than listen to, but… [laughs]"
Are you happy with your current bill? [WARBRINGER, BLACKGUARD, HATESPHERE]
"Oh, yeah. Love it, actually. They're all super nice people and we're all getting along, and that's not always the case on a tour with a four-band package."
Do you have a wish list of bands you'd love to tour with, but haven't had the chance?
"I'd love to tour with TOOL. Never gonna happen. We're too underground. [thinks] Actually, they did take out MESHUGGAH, didn't they? I love that band. Of course, the obligatory answer is METALLICA. I'm pretty sure."
[Dagna rolls her eyes]
"You wouldn't want to tour with METALLICA? Don't look at me like that, Dagna. Come on, are you nuts? That's like everybody's dream!"
[Dagna]: For numbers, maybe.
"Well, I forgave them after their last record, which actually wasn't that bad. And of course, the next stupid response would be IRON MAIDEN. Oh, the SCORPIONS!"
[Dagna]: Of course!
[Attila grunts approval through a mouthful of dinner]
"The SCORPIONS, if Uli Roth was back in the band and they played the entire "In Trance" record."
How about for headlining tours? Anyone young and wet behind the ears that you'd love to take out on tour?
"Oh, boy. I'm drawing a blank on that one."
[Dagna, whispering]: FATES WARNING.
"FATES WARNING is not young and wet behind the ears! [laughs]"
[Dagna]: Oh, young - okay, my bad. I messed up part of the question. [laughs]
"Yeah, I toured with them twice already anyway, but I love those guys. We just saw Franky [Aresti, guitarist] from FATES WARNING at the show last night in New York."
[Dagna, sarcastically]: Thanks. Second time.
[Attila]: You didn't get to meet him?
"Dagna's a huge FATES WARNING fan, so now she's pissed off. 'Cause when we were in L.A., Ray [Alder, vocalist] came out to the show too, and hung out with us, and she didn't get to meet him either. [laughs]"
[Dagna]: I hate you guys. [laughs]
Getting back to your lyrics - many NEVERMORE songs seem to veer back and forth between the extremely personal and the extremely social or political. In the latter case, what's a good example of something you might read or hear that just clicks with you? What makes you think, "I have to write this down. This pisses me off - or inspires me"?
"I just think that there are a lot of things wrong in the world, and the more you watch TV, the more you get programmed to think 'things are fucked up' or 'things aren't fucked up.' Or they don't want you to know how fucked up they are. Some of the topics I touch on, I think they're important for people to be exposed to, because if at any time you can increase awareness about problems, it's only better for society. This is why I wrote a song about the revolution in Tiananmen Square. And I actually was most inspired to do that after reading The Politics Of Ecstasy, the book by Timothy Leary, that I totally copped an album title from. ['The Politics Of Ecstasy', 1996] And everyone thought, 'Oh, P.O.E., and your name's NEVERMORE, and that must mean Edgar Allan Poe.' I've heard that more than once. But anyway, I actually talked to a couple of Leary's friends in San Francisco, women who had worked with him for artwork on one of his books - I think it was called Chaos And Cyber Culture - and I told her that a lot of the topics on the record dealt with Leary's writings. She said, 'You have no idea how awesome that is, and I'm gonna tell him.' I never did get to meet the guy, but I did go to one of his lectures when he was in Seattle, and got him to sign my books. He wasn't really talking to people; there were so many. But I had so many questions I wanted to ask him."
Have you had time to write anything new since "The Obsidian Conspiracy" came out? When do you think we can expect the next NEVERMORE record?
"Of course! I'm hoping by next year. I don't think we should be sitting on our asses, so it definitely won't be five years from now."
Any old songs that you're dusting off and playing again?
"We play one SANCTUARY song tonight. And I always loved the idea of doing 'The Learning' and 'Sentient 6' back to back. We did that on the DVD. One is the first, and the other is the continuation, or the sequel. Those are some of my favorite lyrics, because I'm really fascinated by artificial intelligence, and the rise of robotics, and what's going to happen in the future. Right now, there are people working on shit that would probably scare the fuck out of the public if we knew what was going on. They've created computer programs that can emulate empathy, and that's the first emotion that they've been taught. Eventually, I do believe machines will become cognizant. It's just a matter of time, because there are people trying to make it happen. Maybe not in our lifetime, but something's going to happen. Although it's not like a 'Terminator' scenario - I don't think."
Do you really think true empathy is possible for machines?
"I think it will be at some point. It's the baby stages right now, but it's gonna be our grandkids that realize what's gonna happen with all this shit. Not us."
Your passion for "Dreaming Neon Black" aside, I feel NEVERMORE is one of those rare bands that improves technically with each album. How do you feel about that assessment?
"Well, I can't really be objective about that, because I'm too close to it, but I do know that every record we've ever done has sold more than the last one. Somebody from our label said to me once that for a band at this stage in our careers that has done so many records, this just never happens. You either go on a slow downslide or you stay the same. So I guess I can't complain about that; we must be doing something right. [laughs] And I think the fact that every record we do sounds pretty much different than all the other ones, we don't really do that on purpose. It just kind of works out that way, although a few people have said the new one sounds a lot like 'Dead Heart In A Dead World', . But as I said, I can't be objective!"