By Shari Lloyd and Linda J. T. LaFianza
Steve Rowe is cured. He's on his feet, no small feat, considering at one point, he was given two hours to live. The entrepreneur, producer, and promoter is fully recovered and back to playing his own particular brand of metal to the glory of God.
The Phantom Tollbooth conversed with Australian Rowe during his brief stay in the United States in late July after Mortification's triumphant European tour. Metal Blade, a respected label in hard music circles, urged us to check in with him on the eve of the release of his first mainstream album, Hammer of God. We listened to an energetic, realistic visionary outline future plans for a genre that, like him, refuses to believe its obituaries.
Tollbooth: Why are you in the United States right now?
Rowe: When we toured here last year, we did 24 shows, so we did Europe this year. The other two guys in the band have gone home and I'm just doing a bit of promotion for Hammer of God, our new record.
Tollbooth: Tell me a little bit about the new record?
Rowe: It's our ninth studio record, and our second album with Metal Blade. It was recorded in my own studio that was built to record it. The studio is called Hammer of God as well. That was really fun, trying to record something over a couple of months rather than trying to stuff it into a couple of weeks. That's kind of what I've been aiming at to do all along.
In the early 1990's, we went through doing the death metal thing but then I lost my band and from that point, I've been heading towards doing a hybrid metal-type thing. In the '80's, I was in a classic metal band Lightforce and I've brought that back into the band, that classic metal style of music mixed with kind of a thrash in sort of a modern setting, with very modern production. I think with this album, we've achieved what I've been setting out to achieve for 15 years.
Tollbooth: Will your fans find this album a lot different than your last one?
Rowe: No. Really, EnVision EvAngelene, the album we did in '95, is very similar to this one. This one is just a little better. The last album (Triumph of Mercy) was going to be similar to this, but we did put a bit of that old death metal grindcore stuff on it. But that didn't really work because our hearts weren't really in doing that.
On Hammer of God, we put the demo version of three songs that ended up on Triumph of Mercy last year. The demos were originally how we were going to do them. They were going to be a thrashy type song, but we used different drumming and sounded more like the old style stuff we had been doing. The whole death metal thing, besides the sort of really, really, beat bands, has kind of died out today. I just wanted to do something original. I think we're combining a whole lot of different stuff in heavy metal that I'm on record as doing but in a very aggressive way.
Tollbooth: What's your favorite song off the album and why?
Rowe: The favorite one would be "The Pearl" which is track five. I've been through extreme cancer. In 1996 I was diagnosed with leukemia and I was given a one percent chance to live. I had a bone marrow transplant, and that song is a thank you to all the people that helped see me through that time. I know I died ten times; should have been dead ten times. June 1997 they gave me two hours.
Tollbooth: Yes, I remember that.
Rowe: The song starts out very slow and dirge sounding. This is kind of a reflection of how I felt during the sickness, it was so extreme. Then the music becomes very uplifting when I'm seeing that I don't ache. But there was a group of people that were my family, certain nurses, and certain friends helped me through that time, and it's kind of very different from that whole orchestral piece in the middle with the piano and everything. I think that's probably my favorite part of the album, even though, when we play live, I'm into playing faster. It was great to do a song that was really slow and the music really reflected what I was trying to say.
Tollbooth: You're just mentioned your cancer. Have you completely recovered from this?
Rowe: I'm totally in remission. I've got no cancer in my body. I haven't had cancer for over two years. But the results of the bone marrow transplant have been pretty devastating on my body. I've got a lot of body damage. I've got 20% kidney function, and things like that, which they said would happen. But the fact that I'm alive is a miracle. And my Christian faith obviously is represented on our records all the time. That really got me through. The doctors were just amazed at me. I could have died from having two grand mal seizures, in 1997, four months after the transplant. My body was just greatly damaged. I've been in a coma twice, I've been in a wheelchair twice, I've had to learn to walk twice. So it's been a hard road for the last three years, but the fact that we were ultimately triumphant, is a miracle, because I'm well enough to do anything. When we toured here last year, I'd only been walking again for a month. And every two songs I had to sit down in a chair, and just talk to the crowd a little bit about what I'd been through, just to get through the show.
Since then, we finished this tour here and we recorded Hammer of God. When we just toured Europe, I stood up, played for 90 minutes, and everything's just progressed on. We're doing such different things with metal music and there's so many satanic bands out there, black metal bands that are kind of boring. We're the only Christian extreme metal band that is on a major independent label; we're on Metal Blade, and Nuclear Blast in Europe. We're on the same label as Man o' War and bands of that caliber. We're really making an impact and we're doing something which is positive and different. We're on a big mainstream label and we're selling serious amounts. So we're giving people an option to listen to something positive, and that's what they want to do.
Tollbooth: I'll come back to that in a minute. How has your illness affected your outlook on life?
Rowe: Incredibly. It's definitely brought me closer in my faith in God because of what he's seen me through. Without that, I wouldn't have had the courage to live. I would've died because the pain was just too much to bear. Also, it's given me a lot of compassion for other people. I'm used to hospitals. I go in and visit people because I know what they're going through. The impact of my illness has been coming through the other end going to places and playing. We visited Scandinavia for the first time.
Actually, it went 'round in the press that I had died when I was given two hours to live. When someone put that on the Internet, of course, people assumed that I'd died. And you end up recovering from that and coming back kinder and things. And then touring the world and playing music, people just cannot believe it. It's just really amazing for them.
And our music is very special for people. It doesn't make us any more special than anybody else, but it just means we're creating something that makes other people's lives a happier place. They want to listen to metal music but they don't want to listen to all this garbage that other bands are playing. They want to listen to something positive and uplifting. We're playing to crowds, when we play in Europe, that are as big as bands that sell ten and twenty times the albums as we do. The people that are into our music are really into it.
Tollbooth: Is Nuclear Blast still releasing you over in Germany?
Rowe: In Europe, yes. Nuclear Blast has got Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Metal Blade has America, Canada, South America and Japan.
Tollbooth: Does your own label, Rowe Records, have anything to do with this album?
Rowe: I record under my own label. My deals with Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast are licensing deals. So it's the same as being signed. They have an option on one more album, and then, we'll just keep working together. It's really cool. It's the same as being signed, and it means we get domestic releases in different countries, which is the best way of selling more units.
Tollbooth: How has your acceptance been by the general market, compared to the Christian market?
Rowe: Good. We obviously sell a lot of records in the Christian market, but being on Metal Blade and Nuclear Blast, the general market is becoming more and more accepting of us all the time. I've been talking to a lot of mainstream labels today, and everybody is saying they're giving us top marks. So I think we're going to get better press that we've ever had before.
We do play to a lot of Christians, obviously, but if we can take off in the mainstream, then we can do bigger and better tours. We get a lot of people coming in that want to see this band that sings these lyrics. We have people coming in with black metal shirts on that like that music. And the more we keep going and the more that people can't bring us down, no matter how hard they try, the more respect we get.
Tollbooth: On your recent tour in Europe, were most the dates played at secular places?
Rowe: They were all secular clubs except for a festival we played in Norway, where we played main stage to about 4,000 people. But the dates were all organized and promoted by Christians. We had a very mixed audience, which was good.
Tollbooth: Tell me more about how these mixed audiences reacted.
Rowe: It was fantastic. I remember distinctly when we were in Germany, in Stuttgart, the club had a capacity of 600, and we had 500, so it was almost packed. Everyone was up against the stage. I started this "God rules" chant, which I always do, and the whole crowd was chanting, "God rules!" There was a guy right up in the front with a Venom shirt on with "Black Metal" written on it chanting, "God rules!" People were there, I don't know how much of a change he got, but maybe he went home with something different to think about.
We do get hassled by people now and again, but generally, people are accepting of us and what we do. We get death threats and all that sort of stuff. Norwegian people are sending me stuff saying, "If you ever turn up in our country, we'll kill you," but we played in a big festival in Norway and there were 4,000 people there, and no one hassled me at all. It's really all talk and no action.
Tollbooth: Do you prefer to play secular clubs?
Rowe: Yes. Certainly. In Australia, that's mainly all we do, play secular clubs with secular bands. We don't play with black metal bands, we generally play with classic metal bands, thrash bands, straightforward metal bands. We're very accepted in that frame, and very respected, because, obviously, of the labels we're on. People can't really do anything else but respect that we have the recognition.
Tollbooth: Do you have any more touring plans?
Rowe: We toured America last year, and we just did Europe. Unless something really big happens with this album, and someone offers us a major tour and certain conditions, we probably won't do America and Europe until 2001. But next year, we're going to go to uncharted territory. We've already been offered to go to South Africa, which we're probably going to go there for two or three shows in Cape Town, Johannesburg, just the main cities. And a guy in Brazil wants to bring us to South America for Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, then in 2-oh-1 we'll come back and do America and Europe again. But you never want to do things too close because people think, "Oh, I saw them last year, I won't go," so you need to kind of split things a couple of years apart.
Tollbooth: You've also done some producing. What are some of your current projects?
Rowe: We just did a Metanoia album, which is one of my Australian bands, that's just come out. I've got two American bands, one's called Ultimatum, they're recording their fourth album, the second one for my label, next month. I just signed a new American band called Gnashing of Teeth. They're kind of like a modern metal band, kind of like Rage Against the Machine, but twice as heavy, a real groove-rap sound.
I've got a Brazilian metal compilation coming out. There are some really cool Brazilian Christian metal bands that I like a lot. So I've got some things on the cards.
Tollbooth: Are most the groups you've produced metal?
Rowe: All Christian metal bands.
I've opened an office here now. Rowe Productions works out of America. But I've got to go home and work on the body a bit. I've been working on music stuff all the time. I can concentrate on managing Mortification and doing that and writing music which is what I really want to do with my label and everything else is going to be done from an office here.
Tollbooth: Is the music scene very different here than Australia?
Rowe: No, Australia is like a little America, really. Whatever is popular in Europe and America is popular in Australia. They are getting into black metal and gothic and classic metal again, because it's come back in Europe. Mainly the stuff in the charts here that is heavy, like Limp Bizket and those sorts of things here, is in the charts in Australia. Similar reflection.
Tollbooth: What factors do you consider when you add a CD to your mail order catalog?
Rowe: I've got to hear something which is unique, and I've got to hear something that I like. (Things on) my label, on Metal Blade and other massive labels can tear to mind, or it might be just a backyard thing. I'm a fan of this music, so I've got to like what I hear. I hear a lot of bands which are good, but I do not necessarily like the music, even some metal. If someone sent me a great death metal record, I'm going to release it (on his label) because I like the music.
But a black metal record? I don't like the music so I'm not going to release it. I'm looking for something that catches my ear, something that I like, that I can find exciting, that I will be enthusiastic to do something with. I get tons of CD's, and 99% of them, I don't like. Not that a lot of them aren't good, but I know what I can sell, and I know what I like. If something special comes along, then I do it.
Tollbooth: What recommendations do you have for young bands that want to play metal?
Rowe: They've got to be able to live the hard times of starting. In reality, even a lot of bands that are signed to decent labels can still go out and play shows to two people. You've got to be able to live through that sort of era. I've been in it for fifteen years, and through the whole first ten years, we'd often do shows to ten, fifteen, twenty people. If you can't deal with that, you'll never survive. If you really believe that eventually you're going to break through, then you'll stay with it. We've proven that.
There is another Australian band called Pegasus, which is just a normal metal band. They played to fifteen, twenty people for years. And now they're signed to Nuclear Blast and they play festivals with 20,000 people. They just stuck with what they believed that eventually they'd break through. But it's not an easy game. It's very competitive. There's no money in it, not that I'm in it for the money, but you have to if you're going to do it full time. That's why I've done the label, and the mail order business, to bring in extra income as well. Not just to help other bands to make a start, but also to keep what I want to do going as well. If I just did Mortification, I couldn't do it full time.
Tollbooth: Do you see metal becoming more popular in the future again?
Rowe: In Europe, it's massive again. Traditional metal, as in Iron Maiden, Halloween, that sort of stuff, is massive again, as big as it ever was, and black metal is really big. Heavy music is always going to be there, and always going to be big.
In America, yeah, Metallica's changed, but they're still huge. And then you've got new metal like Limp Bizket and stuff like that, which is not really metal, but is hard music. So there's always going to be some sort of trend happening, and then there's going to be the people that play timeless music, which is what I'm trying to do,
Tollbooth: What can you tell a metalhead to convince them to listen to your CD?
Rowe: People will find that Hammer of God is a good metal album. Some people might not listen to it because they might be prejudiced against what we have to say as far as the lyrics go, but they should have the record and get into it for the musical value. And then if they want to check out what it says, then it has definitely got a positive message that can do people good.
It's basically a combination of classic metal thrash and modern heavy metal interaction. There are a lot of different styles on there. We use a lot of keyboards and other instruments and stuff like the harp.
We want every song to be
individually recognized. One thing that bugs me about heavy metal is that
for just about every band, their next record sounds like the last one,
and every song sounds the same. Whereas every Mortification album sounds
different, and every song has to have an individual identity. When we start
playing it, people know what song it is. If they know our stuff, they recognize
it. That's very important that we don't just box ourselves into doing just
one thing. I always write everything heavy, but I always try to have the
music reflect what I'm saying in the song.