For a genre which tends to look at the half-empty bucket of life, Doom Metal aficionados have a surprisingly zesty appreciation for life. Case in point is Earthen Grave. The band was formed in 2008 by guitarist Jason Muxlow [The Living Fields, Wintering, Fields of Burden], drummer Scott Davidson and bassist Ron Holzner [Trouble, The Skull, Debris Inc, Wet Animal] who were soon joined by singer Mark Weiner [Trifog] and violinist Rachel Barton-Pine. Most Metal fans outside the States might be unfamiliar with her but Rachel is well known within Classical music circles worldwide where her talent has been acknowledged countless times since she began performing when she was just seven years old.
Having spent the last few months enamoured with Earthen Grave’s debut album, I recently put a call through to Ron Holzner who was happy to chat with me about his career, Doom Metal and of course about Earthen Grave.
You’ve mentioned Ronnie James Dio…..his influence on Metal is obvious but what did he mean to you personally? Did you know he started out as a bass player, like yourself?
Ron: Really? I had no idea. He never told me that. I shared many cocktail parties with my friend Ronnie James Dio. When I was with Trouble we had played a number of UK dates opening for Dio, such as at the Hammersmith Odeon. I think we had done 6 shows in England and Scotland. It was wonderful.
He was such as nice guy. A gentleman. One of the coolest guys in the street and anyone who has had a chance to meet him will tell you that. His music…Sabbath, Rainbow….it was all amazing. He’s a big influence on Earthen Grave and we’re glad to have had an opportunity to repay him with the ‘Stargazer’ song.
So these bonus tracks are the first recordings done by Chris Wozniak with Earthen Grave, right?
Ron: He didn’t play on ‘Stargazer’ – that had our original drummer Scott [Davidson]. Chris played on the new song ‘death is another word…’, which is on both the vinyl and CD of the re-issue, and on the live version of ‘Dismal Times’, which is on the LP. Chris, who’s played with Lair Of The Minotaur, should also be there for our next record.
So what happened to Scott? What was the reason for his departure from Earthen Grave?
Ron: Well…..[pauses]…..Scott and myself have been friends for a long time. The thing is Scott is such a busy guy. He runs a radio station here in Chicago - Rebel Radio – and he’s also in 2 or 3 other bands. So he really couldn’t commit full-time to what we want to do. If we remained a local band in Chicago and had not tried to branch out worldwide, he would probably still be with us. But we needed to make it bigger and better and I don’t think……well, it’s hard to explain because he’s an old friend, but let’s just say that he didn’t fit into our plans to take it to the next level.
Let’s speak about another Earthen Grave member: violinist Rachel Barton-Pine. Do you think Rachel’s involvement with Earthen Grave helped bridge the perceived gap between Classical music and Metal music?
Ron: Absolutely. When we first started to rehearse with Rachel we wondered how we going to do this together and we said we’d do just one song with her on violin ‘cause otherwise it would be too weird and it wouldn’t work. And she’s such a talented violinist that it wouldn’t do her justice to have her do just an ambience on a song. However she told us ‘No, I want to be in a band and not just play one song’ and that forced us to rewrite our songs and arrange them in a way that the violin plays a major part. I wanted her to be the third guitar, I wanted to play the lead guitar like Eddie Van Halen, to play the rhythm guitar like Tony Iommi. Only on violin instead of guitar. I wanted her to do all that and she can do all that.
You know, Classical is so close to Metal. If you hear Randy Rhodes, Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie…..they’re all doing Classical scales. I remember asking Rachel to do a Randy Rhodes solo on violin and she did it straight away on the spot. I’ve also heard her do an amazing version of Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ on violin. At first I thought it was going to be pretty hard working with her but after realising how talented she is and how much she loves Metal, it turned out to be really easy. She’d just plug into a Marshall stack and start Rockin’! [laughs]
You suggest Rachel uses the violin to do the same things one would do on a guitar. Actually I don’t entirely agree with you on that. For instance in the epic Earthen Grave song ‘Death On High Seas’ I don’t think the song would be the same if a guitarist would do the same things Rachel is doing there.
Ron: You’re right. It is different. We have played the song without her and our guitar player Tony [Spillman] does her fills. His style is more like KK Downing or Jeff Hanneman with the whammy bar so he emulated the violin very well. But it’s not the same. It’s the same but different. But I know what you’re saying.
Rachel and Tony know how to use Classical music to set up the tone for that song, how get your emotions as a listener really going. They know how to build tension into the music. The song is about the sailors who are going to die amidst a raging storm and Rachel sets up the tension really well so much that you almost feel you’re on the boat with those poor sailors.
Speaking about song themes, I’m guessing the lyrics of ‘Beneath A Shovel Load’ are about Rachel…..can you tell me more about that?
[Note: 8 years ago Rachel was involved in a gruesome accident where she got caught in the doors of a moving train and subsequently dragged along for several metres before being run over by that same train. One leg was severed and the other severely mangled. She only escaped death through the prompt aid of persons at the scene of the accident and of the medics later on.]
Ron: No. Not at all.
I thought that was the case because the opening verses of that song are ‘Hits the chest like a freight train’.
Ron: That has nothing to do with Rachel. The lyrics are kind of a way of saying ‘full steam ahead’. You know, somebody asked Mark [Weiner – Earthen Grave vocalist] that before.
Rachel’s accident was tragic but it also made her become this amazing musician that nothing could stop or hold down. They had told her she’d never walk again and yet here she is standing on stage with Earthen Grave and spending the whole show headbanging with us. If she puts her mind at something she’ll make it happen.
‘Beneath A Shovel Load’ is about life and death. Actually I’ve got ask Mark about that but I definitely do know it’s not about Rachel.
I think its inspirational how such people manage to overcome overwhelming difficulties. There’s Tim Tomaselli, Place Of Skulls and Pentagram’s ex-drummer who performs and tours despite having a prosthetic right leg. And of course there’s Tony Iommi who lost parts of 2 fingers in a work-related accident before forming Black Sabbath. Not only did Iommi overcome the resulting emotional barriers but actually changed the face of contemporary music while doing so.
Ron: I don’t think Black Sabbath would have sounded like Black Sabbath if he hadn’t lost his fingers. It’s not a blessing but it’s a tragic event that was turned around into a positive and carried on from it. It’s something wonderful that it didn’t make you stop but made you change your direction and made you create something new and different. It’s when you’ve got strong-minded people who are determined and never give up. It’s just like a little bump in the road. Keep carrying forward and never give up. A strong will and a strong mind gets you through everything.
I can’t agree more with you on that. Let’s talk about Trouble. The band has is currently preparing to release their new album – the first without Eric Wagner on vocals. Were you surprised that Eric was left out of Trouble’s plans?
Ron: Not really, ‘cause I saw the direction the band was going when I left. I knew that eventually it was going to fall apart. And eventually Eric just didn’t want to be there any more because it was not a good environment. They tried to sort it out but it was more like a forced thing and there wasn’t a good working relationship any more. He was already out for a while when they got that guy Kory [Clarke – ex-Warrior Soul]. It was like why would they do that to songs we worked so hard on for many years. You know, it was as if the history of the band was being almost thrown away with somebody who didn’t appreciate it.
But now they’ve got Kyle [Thomas – ex-Exhorder] who is one of the baddest vocalists and coolest dudes out there. So I’m sure the new Trouble album is going to rock with him.
I’m very much looking forward to listen to the new Trouble album. Ron, what are your own recollections of playing with Trouble?
Ron: It taught me a lot. I made a lot of friends around the world, it opened doors…..it was something really special. At the time we were just having fun and trying to play and rock and do the best music we could. We didn’t realise it was a bigger thing than it actually was. Now it has an almost legendary status and I’m like ‘Wow! I was actually part of that’. It was awesome. It helped me as a musician and now it made me yearn to produce, to write, to do everything myself – which I got to do with Earthen Grave. I got to produce the record – something I’m really happy with.
Same thing with Eric. He’s producing stuff. He’s got his band Blackfinger and he’s produced their record. We learnt a lot about production from Rick Rubin, who had produced the last 2 Trouble records. He’s a strange character but we leant a lot from him…..about arranging songs, putting them in different formats…..about the whole production process. Even Bruce [Franklin – Trouble guitarist] is producing a record which is coming out very soon. So we’re all trying our hands at producing right now. [laughs] It’s a good thing.
[Note: Rick Rubin’s involvement as a producer has seen him produce albums for countless influential bands and artists, such as Metallica, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Rage Against The Machine, Cheryl Crow and Audioslave.]
Of course Rick Rubin also produced the last Black Sabbath album [“13”]
Ron: He did and he rocked it, man!
Since we’re mentioning it, what do you think about the most recent Black /Sabbath album?
Ron: I think it’s wonderful. It’s heavy as hell. If any other band puts out a record like “13” these days and were called Black Sabbath, it would be the album of the year. But just because it is the Black Sabbath that we know people are saying things like ‘Oh, it doesn’t sound like Black Sabbath.’ Those people who are putting it down can suck my dick because it’s a fuckin’ true Black Sabbath album goddammit! [laughs]
They know what they’re doing. It is fuckin’ heavy and I’m so glad…hey, it hit no.1 in the UK charts…..a Doom band. They’re a band that defined our careers. It’s such an amazing album and I put my hat off to them. They should erect statues all over the world to them because they’re such amazing gentlemen.
Agreed. If this turns out to be their swansong, I’d be happy at how the band’s career would have ended.
Ron: I want to buy the special edition of that album ‘cause I’d like to listen to its bonus tracks. I can hear songs written by Tony Iommi and Geezer any day. I just hope they can get together with Bill. He can work in the studio with them and not tour – that would be fine with me. Yes, I really hope that they can do their last record with Bill. That way all the Sabbath fans would be happy.
Myself included, I must say.
Ron: I don’t think he’d be able to tour and do 2-hour sets. He’s abused his body over the years and, let’s face it, we all get older and can’t do the same things we did when we were younger. I can understand the business side of it but these guys being childhood friends they should have been a little classier and included Bill.
I’d like to briefly go back to Trouble. In the mid-1990s you formed a bluesy band called Wet Animal with Jeff ‘Oly’ Olson…was Wet Animal your way of dealing with the frustrations you were having with Trouble?
Ron: Actually Rick Wartell [Trouble guitarist] started that band and…well Trouble was touring with Cathedral in the US and we were about to break up. We all knew that. And Rick asked me to join him because he had a few of my friends playing with him at the time so I helped him put that band together. So we had written all the songs and recorded them and basically me and Rick had fallen out and he axed from that end. And I left Trouble at the same time. I would have loved to be part of it because I co-wrote all those songs. It’s one of those things that happened in the business that you wish hadn’t. And we moved on. So that’s Rick’s baby, not mine.
Jeff Olson and yourself have recently contributed to the debut album of In-Graved, Victor Griffin’s band. How did your contribution to that album come about and what was the experience like?
Ron: It was amazing. That record is really and truly amazing. It’s a step back to ‘70s Blues Rock…..Heavy Rock. I’ve been friends with Victor for a long time. It was 1983 when he handed me a cassette of this crazy thing called Death Row. When Bruce Franklin and myself listened to it I though it was the heaviest shit I had ever heard in my life. So we became instant friends and kept in touch over the years. I helped him out in Place Of Skulls when I jammed with him for a little while. At the time, my house had burnt down and my mum was sick so I had to back out of the Place Of Skulls project and never got to play on the record.
Then, one thanksgiving, he called me to wish me happy thanksgiving and told me ‘I’ve got a new project going. Would you like to play bass on a song?’ And he sent me a track on which I recorded my bass parts and he liked it so much that he sent me another track. So I play bass on 2 tracks in the In-Graved album.
It was amazing. I was recently on vacation in Europe where I played on one of the songs in Berlin, in the Desertfest as a matter of fact. Two weeks ago they played in a festival in Milwaukee where I joined them again. So it’s nice hanging out and playing with Jeff Olson and jamming with Victor. Victor even played ‘Relentless’ with Earthen Grave.
You’re mentioning festivals held in the US…..I was really surprised by the recent proliferation of Doom festivals in the States. Many North American musicians I’ve interviewed, including Victor Griffin, have lamented the problems festivals face over there, especially when it comes to attendance figures.
So are things really looking good for Doom Metal in the States?
Ron: it’s getting a lot better. Doom seems to be a small community in the States. It’s a bit funny ‘cause we all know each other. I think Roadburn [Metal festival held in Holland around mid-August] has a lot to do with the state of things. A lot of these bands in US festivals have played in Roadburn and they saw how all the bands and fans were hanging out together and having a good time and said ‘Hey, why don’t we do this in the States!’
Now, in the States, there’s the Stoner Hand Of Doom festival. Rob [Levey] has been doing this festival for years and he started helping other promoters get their festivals off the ground. Mike [Smith] has started doing his Doom fest in Milwaukee and now it’s started to spread like wildfire throughout the States. There’s Doom bands from all regions and basically what they’re doing is grouping all the same kind of bands together and hitting all these different festivals. Now they’re putting up another one in Denver, one in Portland…..
How did they all go?
Ron: Well, we didn’t play all those. We [The Skull] did play the Las Vegas Doom Fest. It was put together by Marco Barbieri, who used to work with Century Media. We played with Las Cruces and Manilla Road. It was really good, man.
You’ve spoken about the well-connected and often incestuous Doom scene of the States. But what are your views on your European counterparts, such as Candlemass, Forsaken and Count Raven?
Ron: I know this may sound funny but I don’t really listen to Doom. [laughs] I’m friends with all the Doom bands from Europe, certainly, also because I’ve met them throughout the years. Usually I’ll go and see them live when they come to Chicago and support them. But as far as CDs go, I really don’t listen to much Doom. The CDs in my car right now are probably by Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Black Flag.
So what you’re saying is that your influences come from beyond the sphere of Doom…
The thing is bands like Trouble, St Vitus and Pentagram….we played Doom before it was even called ‘Doom’. And Trouble was a culmination of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. St. Vitus was Punk Rock and Judas Priest…..they couldn’t really play fast so what they were really doing was Punk Rock slow. And Pentagram was just heavy Blues Rock. You know, Geezer [Butler – Black Sabbath bassist] recently called the new record as Satanic Blues. So none of us really call our music Doom because we played it before it was even called Doom.
Our grandchildren – the bands that were inspired by us – they were the ones who started to call it Doom. Bands like Cathedral, Candlemass…that became the sort of New Wave of Doom Metal and that branched out into bands playing straight Doom. But what we played was…some of our songs were Doom but not all of them. Kind of like Black Sabbath’s songs – they’ve got some Doom parts but also others which are Heavy Rock. They rarely had a song which was full-blown Doom from start to finish. Now even Sabbath are playing straight Doom just because. So it’s funny because the Doom kids have ended up influencing the masters too. It’s all come full circle, which is pretty cool.
The Doom scene has always been very well interconnected too. Fans are very loyal to their bands and there tends to be a strong sense of fraternity...
Ron: Absolutely. For example there’s this festival…..[pauses to think]…..it’s not the Hell’s Pleasure Fest of Germany, which is also really cool…..let me see…..you’ve got Oliver who does…is it the Stoner Hand of Doom? What’s that festival that is held in a church and they’re not going to have any more?
Doom Shall Rise.
Ron: That’s the one! That festival was where we were all hanging out together. We were all outside having beers and the fans were getting to meet the bands and the bands were all hanging out together. Like Roadburn, that I mentioned earlier. Fans and bands would be sitting outside on picnic benches chatting and drinking and there was really a strong sense of community.
Yeah, it’s a great feeling.
Ron: Like we’re all in it together. Which we are, you know. And that’s kind of why we started The Skull, because I had been hearing from the Trouble fans: ‘Why don’t you do something together. We want to hear the old songs that Trouble doesn’t play or hardly ever plays.’ And I said, well, we’ll see if we can do that. And after joking about it with the guys, we decided to put together The Skull. We were just doing it as a side thing because I’ve got Earthen Grave and Eric has Blackfinger. But it really took off and people are responding well to it.
With The Skull you play Trouble songs so I’m guessing it’s more of a live band and won’t be doing any recordings…..
Ron: Actually we’ve going to record a record in October and already have a label involved.
Will you be recording original numbers?
Ron: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of original songs and we’re thinking of doing half and half. Maybe do one side of Trouble songs and one side of studio songs. I can’t really go too much into it until we have the official announcement toward the end of July but it’s looking very good.
You think it will be out by the end of the year?
Ron: No. We’re thinking of having a Spring 2014 release when we could come over to Europe and play your wonderful festivals, such as Desertfest and Roadburn.
That’s definitely something I’ll look forward to. What about Earthen Grave? Are there any realistic plans to come over and play in Europe before the end of the year?
Ron: Not before the end of the year. Right now we just want to get this rolling with the new record and do what we can do here in the States. As for next Spring we might even do a combination tour, get both Earthen Grave and The Skull over to Europe. Get together 3 or 4 other band, jump onto a nightliner, get into a tour bus and tour for a couple of weeks. That’s what I’m shooting to do. Like that I won’t have to pay for two plane tickets, I only have to pay for one.
And hopefully Rachel will come along with you...
Ron: I’m hoping that she can at least play the majority of the shows ‘cause her schedule is so intense. She’s like an international superstar – her Classical shows are booked 2 years in advance.
Ron: But she plays concerts in Europe all the time so if we can co-ordinate something she can, perhaps, play Classical stuff in the day and with us at night.
You know, if it wasn’t for Earthen Grave, I wouldn’t have discovered Rachel and I’m sure there are other European Metal fans that will appreciate her music.
Ron, are there any ideas floating around for a second Earthen Grave album?
Ron: We probably have enough material for another 2 or 3 records. Our guitar player Jason Muxlow is a riff-writing machine. I was going to retire since I met him. Everytime he sits down he’d write about 5 riffs just like that. I’d go: ‘My goodness, dude!’
I write my parts with him, we arrange them together. It’s a wonderful relationship that we’ve got. Yeah, I’ve got about 5 CDs of just riffs that he’s done. I’ve also got about 5 tapes of stuff that I’ve put down, which I’ve got to separate into stuff I want to use for The Skull and stuff I want to use for Earthen Grave.
Both of us are going to spend the summer writing stuff. I think this July we’ll also start putting together our ideas for the new Earthen Grave record. Then we’ll be recording probably around late Fall. November might be a good time to record and hopefully we can get the album out by next Summer.
That’s would be great. It would mean you could play the new material in the European Summer festivals of 2014.
Ron: I’m hoping for that. All my buddies are running those festivals now so hopefully there will be some returns of favours. [laughs]
Well, Ron it was great talking to you. Would it be possible to ask Eric a few questions?
Ron: I’ll go and ask him…..
The Eric we refer to is in fact Eric Wagner, current vocalist of The Skull (with Ron) and with Blackfinger. The same vocalist whose distinct voice graced all of Trouble’s albums until the time of writing this. To discover what was said in that conversation, however, you’ll have to wait a little bit longer! Keep your eyes peeled.
© 2013 Chris Galea
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Interviewed by Chris Galea