With only one demo ("Eat Lead") and two full length albums ("Ordered To Kill" and "Retaliatory Strike") the American three piece AT WAR established themselves back in the 80s. Their brand of MOTÖRHEAD-ish Thrash Metal turned out to be a nice addition to all the SLAYER and METALLICA copycats and quickly gained them worldwide recognition. After a very long period of silence, the band has finally returned to the scene and is currently working on new material… Needless to say that Lacy immediately took this opportunity to discuss the entire history of the band with original bassplayer / vocalist Paul Arnold….
So Paul, to start this feature, I am curious to know, how did you discover Metal music? How old were you at that time?
"My older brother Steve was always turning me on to new bands. I was always attracted to the heavier music of the time. It started for me with bands like AEROSMITH, BLACK SABBATH, SAXON, JUDAS PRIEST, IRON MAIDEN, MOTÖRHEAD".
What did you find so exciting in this music? What was the attraction of this music?
"Aggression in all its forms."
Was your goal at the age of 14/15 to become a Metal musician? When did you decide to be a Metal musician?
"When I was 14-15, being a Metal musician was not even in my mind. I was into surfing, chasing girls and hanging at the beach."
What were your influences to be a Metal musician? Were you into the NWOBHM bands or rather into the more brutal and extreme stuff, such as EXODUS, METALLICA, SLAYER, VENOM, HELLHAMMER, EXCITER etc.?
"Bands like EXODUS, METALLICA, SLAYER, and AT WAR formed around the same time and we all have the same types of bands that influenced us. We all shared a love of the NWOBHM bands, and just took it a step further after hearing VENOM, THE RAMONES and MOTÖRHEAD."
How did your choice fall on the bass? Did / do you play perhaps other instruments as well?
"I was at a friends house when I was about 16 and he was jamming some TED NUGENT on his guitar and handed me a bass and said "Do this!" and the next thing I knew, I was playing bass."
Were you self-taught or…?
"At first I was self taught, but I did have some training with a good friend of mine who was a music teacher and awesome bass player."
AT WAR was formed in 1983 by you on bass / vocals, Shawn Helsel on guitar and Dave Stone on drums, was it your first band or did you play earlier in several, local outfits?
"We did have a cover band that played stuff like SAXON, JUDAS PRIEST, IRON MAIDEN, MOTÖRHEAD called PARALAX, but that just shortly turned into AT WAR after we kicked the singer out."
How did you hook up with each other? Did you know each other earlier?
"We had put up an ad for a guitar player at the local music store and Shawn answered it. He came riding up on his motocycle sitting on his guitar. He was just a kid, but man he kicked ass. When it came time to find a new drummer. I had seen Dave playing in a local cover band and he blew me away every time I saw him. It jus so happened Shawn knew him and I asked him to see if he would be interested in what we were doing, and the rest is history."
Who came up with the name of the band? Did it refer to VENOM’s classic "At War With Satan"?
We were stuggling with what to call ourselves when one day we were listening to VENOM and the record started skipping and it just kept saying: AT WAR, AT WAR, AT WAR, AT WAR, AT WAR! Shawn looked at me and we both said: Hell yes!!!"
Who did the logo which is cool in my opinion.
"Shawn came up with the original design and we worked it until we came up with what you see today."
You came from Virginia Beach, was it – so to speak – a Metal oriented / influenced surrounding, such as New York, Los Angeles, Texas or the Bay Area? I mean, was there a great Heavy Metal buzz?
"Not at all… The only bands from our area were cover bands. We did not want to have anything to do with that scene, so we created a Metal scene when we started hanging with the Punkrock bands."
Was it your idea to establish a three-piece band? Didn’t you want to have a second guitarist in the band?
"No… We figured if MOTÖRHEAD, VENOM and RUSH could do it, that we could too. There’s something about a three piece band… It just seems heavier."
As far as the line-up, would you say that you became a trio because your faves, such as MOTÖRHEAD, EXCITER, VENOM or RAVEN were trios as well?
"That did have a lot to do with it. Besides it is easier to be a three piece band."
Besides the position of the bassist, you became the singer, was it a difficult situation or was it clear for you to be the singer as well?
"I became the singer because we could not find anyone worth a shit to sing. It can be hard at times but you just have to pick your battles."
In your opinion, with a second guitarist in the ranks of the band, would have been AT WAR a more brutal sounded, more aggressive band?
"Who knows? Maybe, maybe not."
Were you jamming covers of bands, such as MOTÖRHEAD, VENOM, EXODUS etc. or did you start writing your own material right from the start?
"We started playing songs from the bands we loved, but we started writing original songs right from the start."
What about the AT WAR rehearsals? How often did you rehearse? Did you take the band seriously?
"We saw Metal bands showing up in fanzines and we said "We can do that!" so we decided to record our first demo. We were dead serious."
You released a two tracks demo called "Eat Lead" in 1985, featuring the title track and ‘Rapechase’, was it your first studio experience? Why did you release only a two track demo, I mean, why didn’t you put more tracks on it?
"Eat Lead" was our first experience in a studio and the reason we only put two songs on it was we did not have money to do a full length album."
Were these the first AT WAR songs?
"Yes. These were two of the first songs. We actually had an entire album’s worth of material, but not the money to record."
Did you shop the demo to attract label interests? How many copies were sold from the demo?
"Yes we did shop the demo and sold it outright. This is how we got our first record deal. We sold about 3500 copies."
Would you say, that the demo called the fans’ attention to the band?
Which labels were interested in the band?
"Combat, Metal Blade, New Renaissance, and others."
You signed with New Renaissance Records and you appeared on the "Speed Metal Hell Vol. I" and "Vol. II" compilations with the tracks ‘Eat Lead’ and ‘Rapechase’, did these compilations also help to introduce the band for the fans?
"Yes, very much."
What about these compilations? As far as I know, only the signings of the label were on them, weren’t they?
"Yes. That’s how labels do it, to promote their bands."
Would you say, that such compilations are good ways promoting young bands?
In the middle of the 80s a lot of compilations were released, such as "Metal Massacre" (perhaps the most known one), "Beyond Metal Zone", "Raging Death" or "Speed Metal Hell", do you still remember about them?
"Yes I do. They were great fun."
In your opinion, are compilations also nowadays in the fashion to support the bands?
"I think there will always be a place for compilations."
Do you still remember, how you got in touch with New Renaissance? Weren’t other bigger labels, such as Combat, Megaforce, Roadrunner, Metal Blade etc. interested in the band?
"New Renaissance offered the best terms as I remember. They were a new label and we were a new band. The bigger labels offers were only in their interest."
Did New Renaissance offer you a correct, good deal? For how many records did you sign with them?
"It was ok, not great, but better than the others. Two records."
Did New Renaissance already exist for a while, when you signed with them or were you one of the first signings of the label?
"They had been around for about a year if I remember correctly. We were one of the first Thrash bands to get signed by them."
A lot of cool bands were on the label at that time, such as BLOODFEAST, WEHRMACHT, ANVIL BITCH, KUBLAI KHAN, PROWLER, INDESTROY etc., were you familiar with all of the New Renaissance bands?
"I was friends with the guys from BLOODFEAST, EXECUTIONER, INDESTROY, and met most of the bands at one time or another."
Would you say that New Renaissance was a Thrash label at that time? Did they sign Thrash bands, because Thrash was a popular style at that time or did they simply like this music?
"They signed the bands because they loved the music for sure. Unlike other labels New Renaissance was into it for the music."
You entered the studio 1986 to record you first album "Ordered To kill", what about the recording sessions of the album?
"We decided to go back to Live Oak studios because we knew the engineer and had worked with im on "Eat Lead" we were still green, but we were hungry and ready to go. It was a lot of fun and we learned a lot."
Besides ‘Rapechase’, ‘Eat Lead’ and the MOTÖRHEAD cover ‘The Hammer’ there’s five new tracks on the record, when did you write these songs? Was the whole material ready, when you entered the studio to record it?
"Yes were had worked all the songs out before we went in the studio."
What about the song ‘Ilsa (She-Wolf Of The SS)"? Was it a song against the neonazi movement?
"It was written after we saw this soft-core porn movie called "Ilsa She Wolf of the SS" That’s all it’s about."
As far as the MOTÖRHEAD cover, it speaks for itself, you covered the song as a tribute to the band, because they had a huge impact on you, is that correct?
"Yes. We all love Lemmy and the boys."
‘Fuckadafi’ was a bonus track on the vinyl version, does it mean that at that time there were two different versions of the record released?
"Yes. The song ‘Fuckadafi’ was released only on the European and Brazilian versions of "Ordered To Kill"."
Would you say, that the "Ordered To Kill" album is musically similar to the early EXCITER, VENOM and MOTÖRHEAD material?
"I don’t know. That’s for the listeners to decide. It was not our intention to sound like anyone. We just did what we did, and hoped people liked it. I know we did."
"Ordered To kill" was a highly praised debut album, Kerrang Magazine hailed it as "America’s answer to MOTÖRHEAD", were you proud of it?
"Hell yes! It made us feel great for sure."
The songs are / were strong and the musicianship is excellent, especially notable is the rhythm section, would you say that you were talented musicians? Did you also have a such impact on the scene, such as SLAYER, METALLICA, POSSESSED, EXODUS etc. had?
"Shawn and Dave are incredible musicians and I am proud to be in their presence. I can’t speak about influence we may or may not have had on the scene, but by judging by the fan loyalty, we made some sort of impact for sure."
Your drummer Dave Stone briefly played with JUDAS PRIEST, could you tell us more about it?
"No. Dave never played with JUDAS PRIEST. He was good friends and grew up with Scott Travis, Scott plays with JUDAS PRIEST."
You recorded, financed and produced just about everything for the record yourselves and locally, why didn’t support the label the recordings?
"They tried, but there were distribution problems. You need to ask New Renaissance that question."
How much time did the recording sessions take? Did you have to hurry with the recordings?
"Ordered To Kill" took about five days to do. "Retaliatory Strike" took about 10 days. We did not have to hurry, we had planty of time."
Were you satisfied with the endresult, with the sound, or if more money would have been available, had the whole record been better?
"At the time we were very satisfied. More money and more time always helps."
The album was released by Rock Brigade in Brazil as well, was it licensed from New Renaissance or did you sign with them too?
"New Renaissance did."
To support the record you went on tour in December 1986 with AGNOSTIC FRONT, any memories of that tour? How did the whole tour go?
"Those guys in AGNOSTIC FRONT were some of the coolest guys I’ve met. It was a blast touring with them."
Were there at that time borders between (Thrash / Speed) Metal and Hardcore? Would you say that D. R. I.’s classic "Crossover" furthered to lift the borders, differences between Thrash and Hardcore?
"Hell yes they did , along with C.O.C they broke down a lot of barrieres between Punk and Metal."
Was "Crossover" the first experience to combine Thrash with Hardcore?
"I believe it was CORROSION OF CONFORMITY for me. When they released "Animosity"."
You also opened for SLAYER and POSSESSED at L’Amours in Brooklyn, New York, how do you remember this show?
"It was one of the coolest shows we have ever done. We were great friends with POSSESSED and it was cool to see SLAYER playing on our gear."
In the middle of the 80s Thrash Metal was very popular, the music was on its peak at that time, in your opinion, what was the reason of it?
"It was just what was happening at the time. Music comes and goes in these cycles. Thrash is making a huge comeback right now as a matter of fact. This is why AT WAR is back together."
In 1988 you released a four track EP called "At War", which was a limited edition, what kind of purposes did it serve? Did perhaps the label ask you to record an advance demo before you entered the studio to record your next effort?
"It was New Renaissance’s idea to help promote the new album."
Were the tunes done already for the "Retaliatory Strike" album? Didn’t you think about, that you leave off the songs from the record and you write brandnew ones instead of them?
"We had all the songs ready."
The album was recorded and mixed at Pyramid Sound, Ithaca, NY, what about the studio sessions?
"They were very professional and Alex is an awesome producer. We had so much fun doing it."
Was Pyramid a better studio than that studio where you recorded "Ordered To Kill"?
"Those who long for peace, must prepare for War."- Vegitus 4th Century A.D., was this quotation the motto of the record?
"Yes. We always believed in that saying."
Would you say that you developed musically compared to "Ordered To Kill"? Are there differences or similarities musically and lyricswise between the both albums?
"Yes. We had matured as a band and gelled a bit more. We were getting better as musicians also."
What kind of purposes did those intros serve, that you used before ‘Crush Your Life’ and ‘Example’? What about ‘F.Y.I.’, what did it mean?
"Just a build up to the song… no great meaning. Enhancement."
The producer of the album was Alex Perialas (along with Rob "Wacko" Hunter of RAVEN), who worked with likes such as OVERKILL, TESTAMENT, CARNIVORE, NUCLEAR ASSAULT, ANTHRAX, S. O. D., was he the perfect person for this job?
"He was a great help and a whole lot of fun to work with."
How was to work with Alex? Did you get on well with him?
"Yes. He is very good and very professional, he helped us get the best record we could at the time."
What kind of shows, tours did you play at that time to support the record? Could you tell us more about it?
"We toured as much as possible to promote the records as all bands do. We played huge shows and we played shitholes. Good with the bad!"
As far as your live performances, were you always support acts or did you play some headliner shows as well?
"We headlined more than we supported, and we shared the bill often also."
You were about to record your next album "Calculated Risk" when negotiations broke down about finances for the recording, what happened?
"We wanted more money and they did not want to give it."
Instead of getting more or even the same amount of cash to record what would have been your most blistering disc to date as "Retaliatory Strike", your record company wanted you to go to Bumfuck, USA with some Russian producer and do it for a buck thirty, did the label want to economize on you?
"It was not that simple, but yes they wanted to economize."
Why did the label want you to work with a Russian producer instead of Alex Perialis?
How was your relationship with the label? How much support did you get from them?
"I always had a great rappoir with NR. We feel we could always have had more support."
You recorded a six song demo, what about those tracks? Would you say that you turned into a modern direction or were you still America’s answer to MOTÖRHEAD?
"It was experimental, but still heavy. We decided it was not where we wanted to be."
You shopped the demo around, but nothing happened, didn’t it arouse the interest of labels?
"We never shopped it around."
Weren’t you at that time with New Renaissance anymore? Did you cancel the contract with them or did the label drop the band?
"We still have an agreement with NR on the first two albums. We never got "dropped", and we never cancelled anything."
AT WAR were always a known underground act, but would you say, if "Calculated Risk" would have been released, would AT WAR have succeeded in becoming a more popular or known act? Would the third album have been a breakthrough for you?
"Who knows? It could have, but if nothing else it would have brought more fans to AT WAR’s camp."
What about the lyrics of the new tracks? Did they develope compared to the first two records?
"It depends on what you mean by "develop". They would have been a bit deeper, but AT WAR for sure."
Why and when did the band break up exactly? What kind of reasons did lead to the breaking up of the band?
"AT WAR never broke up! We just got busy doing other things, until last year when we decided it was time to get back together and pick up where we left off."
What did you do after the demise of the band? Did you stay in touch with each other?
"There was never any demise of AT WAR, just a long hiatus."
A lot of cool bands broke up after the releasing of the second record, such as HOLY TERROR, BLESSED DEATH, VIKING, HEATHEN, BLOODFEAST, INDESTROY, ATROPHY, TOXIK etc., what was the reason of it? Why couldn’t many Thrash bands release three-four albums?
"I can’t answer for the other bands, but I can say it was a hard time for Metal at the end of the eighties here in the US. Europe maintained a great Metal scene."
In your opinion, why did Thrash Metal go out of fashion at the late 80s / early 90s?
"In the US I blame a shift in the general public’s interest, and the advent of the grunge scene. There were a ton of Metal bands and a lot of people wanted something else."
METALLICA and SLAYER became the most popular bands, what do you think about it? What do you think about METALLICA’s "Black" album? Why did they turn into that commercial direction?
"After "Kill Em All" I personally lost interest in METALLICA, and I don’t think they went in a commercial direction. I think it was their natural direction and the fact that more and more people started getting into them."
They managed being the kings of Thrash Metal, right?
"They definately came out of the ninties on top of the heap, I don’t consider METALLICA "Thrash" Metal."
No only METALLICA, but also TESTAMENT, MEGADETH or ANNIHILATOR started turning into a commercial direction forgetting their roots, what do you think about it? "The Ritual" (TESTAMENT), "Countdown To Extinction" (MEGADETH) and "Set The World On Fire" (ANNIHILATOR) became more commercial records compared to the previous ones.
"I am sure they were doing what they thought was right at the time. Far be it from me to judge those guys for what they decided to do with their own music."
The 90s weren’t favourable for Metal, it was the time of Grunge and Pop / Punk which almost killed Metal, how do you recall it? Did you keep an eye what’s going on in the underground?
"I watched the scene a little, but not much during the 90’s"
Both "Ordered To Kill" and "Retaliatory Strike" were re-released at the late 90s, do all of the members know about the re-releases? Do the re-released versions contain some unreleased material or anything else?
"Just a re-release on CD for the collector market."
Why were they limited to 1100 copies?
Tirade Records released a BARBATOS / AT WAR split single in 2002, what about this material? Whose idea was this stuff, how did it come into being?
"It was a bootleg and we never authorized it, but I thought it was cool."
You featured on the single with ‘Fuckadafi’, was it an old song that you re-recorded or was it a brandnew one, that you wrote only for this material?
"This was the song that was released on "Ordered To Kill" in Europe and Brazil."
The single was limited to 200 copies, I think it was sold out very fast, right?
Does it mean, that AT WAR reformed in 2002?
"We did get back together in 2002 for a brief time, but it was short lived. We were all busy with other things in our lives and did not have the time to dedicate to AT WAR."
How do you view all of those reformations, which happened in the last 5-6 years, such as DESTRUCTION, HEATHEN, METAL CHURCH, AGENT STEEL, DEATH ANGEL or NUCLEAR ASSAULT? Is it worth to reform after 15-16 years of silence?
"If thats’s what the band wants to do and the fans want to hear it… I say hell yes… Go for It!! It’s all about the music and having a good time."
Did you already listen to their comeback material? Does the new material of these bands have anything to do with their immortal, classic ones?
"I have listened to some of them and I love it. I hope they keep putting out new material to show these young bands how it is done."
If you would get an offer to do a world tour, would you accept it?
"If the circumstances were right, absolutely!"
In your opinion, is the name of AT WAR still in people’s mind?
"Just check our myspace site at www.myspace.com/atwartheband and you tell me."
My last question: how would you characterize the career of the band respectively how would you characterize yourself and your bandmates?
"I feel AT WAR was before its time as evidenced by the resurgence in Thrash Metal we are seeing now with bands like MERCILESS DEATH and MUNICIPAL WASTE. It is obvious that AT WAR made an impact and we are all very proud to have been a part of the beginning of all of this."
Paul, thanks a lot for your answers, I hope, I wasn’t boring you and it made you fun to recall the old memories, the glorious days, anything to add to the interview what I forgot to ask or to mention?
"Thanks to all who have supported AT WAR over the years and remember AT WAR is back!!! We will be recording a new CD early next year and hopefully we will be doing some shows in Europe next Summer (2008). Come visit us at www.myspace.com/atwartheband."
Interview: László Dávid