In the end of May Grave Digger who celebrates 40 years anniversary this year, released their 20th album Fields Of Blood. We had a long conversation with legendary Axel Ritt about Scotland, COVID-19, plans for 2020, 2021 and situation in music nowadays
How are you at these strange times?
Well, as you can imagine it’s not that easy at the moment worldwide if you are an artist. There are no shows in Europe and the rest of the world as well, nothing. It’s pretty difficult situation we got in many parts of our business. Everybody is hoping that situation will change as soon as possible but I’m pretty sure in 2020 there will be no more shows for anybody, no matter how big the band is and we all hope for 2021.
But I hope you, your family and your bandmates are good physically?
Yeah, we’re fine so far and to be honest my regular daytime business didn’t change that much because I have a record label, a publishing label and a record studio. The only thing is a live situation, the rest is fine. But the live situation is the main part of business.
To be honest, I am and the Grave Digger, we are one of the lucky guys because we do have enough money at the back to live on for one or two years so that’s no problem. But lots of my colleagues have to close down their business. They not able to live on music anymore and have to go back to their former professions or even worse – they have to learn new profession. A friend of mine, a very good bass player, for example, is working as a gardener now or will work as a cook or whatever and that’s pretty heavy, yeah.
Yeah, that’s really heavy. Hope that next year the situation will change.
We all hope so.
Anyway, let’s move to your last album, Fields Of Blood. Did you initially planned to finish, let’s say “Scotland Trilogy” or it was just a right time to make it?
I think, both. Chris and I had a lot of talk about this album because we both were with the opinion that it would be the right time and it would be the right place. Previous album, The Living Dead polarized the fans, let’s say, a little bit. 50% said it’s an awesome, great album, 50% said “aah, it’s not my cup of tea” but 100% were talking about the album. We thought it would be good to give people what they exactly expect from the band like Grave Digger. So it was like: “Let’s do the final step! For the very last time let’s put out the real bagpipes, let’s put out the historic drummers and write songs that we know that people will like it”. So it wasn’t on accident, it was on purpose.
What is so special about Scotland for Grave Digger and for you personally? It’s not the only country, which struggled for its independence.
It is right. 25 years ago when Tunes Of War has been composed and recorded. This happened because the bass player these days, Tomi Göttlich is English and History teacher. As far as I know he came up with the idea of doing a concept album about Scotland: he was very well informed and he knew a lot because of his profession as a teacher. This album was very successful and some parts, which were pretty new for the band like Grave Digger, a typical True German Metal band so far, went together. And from that time on the band started to get better informed about country and places. For example, Chris travelled many times to Scotland and learned a lot about the culture. It’s a beautiful country. So one piece came to the other and we’re Scotland fans maybe by accident. But to hang an instrument like bagpipe, a real bagpipe was a challenge for me as a composer. There are so many interesting parts, which made us Scotland fans but it happened by accident, I think.
You also appeared as a guitarist in Grave Digger on The Clans Will Rise Again. You can also call it “accident” or it’s something that you brought?
Well, it’s also maybe happened more like on purpose when I joined the band. It was a story behind: I know Chris for let’s say 30 years or more. We worked together in the music business because of my record label and publishing; Chris had a promotion company so we had a lot of contact together but never performed in a band, just working on the business side. When my predecessor left the band, Chris gave me a call when he was on holiday in Greece. He told me about the situation and said: “Axel, we do have some shows left for this year. Can help us out because the contract already signed and we need guitar player who will do these shows.” I said: “Ok, I will do it” and he said: “The only problem is you just have time 10 days! So please but these albums and get in contact with these songs.” So I cancelled all my plans and then I sat down only performing and practicing these songs. We had one show on the festival in Germany and the second show was Brazilian Tour, where we’ve never been before so it was very exciting for me in 2009. In the end of the year the band asked me if I want to be a permanent member and I said: “Yes, I’d love to” so everything came together and then the next album stepped into the scene. To be honest, there were only few albums that impressed me when I heard the name “Grave Digger” but of course on the very first rank is Tunes Of War because it’s the most successful album so far as well. I thought it’ll be good idea to do something that people will love to hear with new guitar player and everything new, so let’s do some Scottish stuff! I came up with the idea and the band said why not? That’s how the second part of trilogy came to life. So this also wasn’t by accident but on purpose.
Great story! I know that Chris loves history a lot. What about you, Jens and Marcus?
Yes, we do as well. To be honest I’ve been in England many times but I’ve never been in Scotland, my fault (laughing). But I saw a lot in the Internet of course and Chris told me a lot about Scotland. The very bad thing was that the very first single from the new album should have been “Lions Of The Sea” and we had very big plans. The plan was to do the very big video, the biggest video in Grave Digger history ever, shooting in the original places in Scotland. We had a crew of 30 people with cameras, make-up artists and whatever, you name it. We wanted to set over for one week and do nothing else but recordings. But as you can imagine, the COVID-19 kills everything so we were not allowed to meet these days, we were not allowed to leave Germany or to enter Scotland. The problem was we had no any content for this video. We said: “Ok, the first video is “All For The Kingdom“, this will be a lyric-video, then the second one was with Noora, “The Thousand Tears” – there was some content while she recorded vocals in my studio and now the very-very big thing will appear.” And nothing appears! We had no content, no video content, nothing! So we decided we do something like a great lyric-video: we buy some great content with great scenes and we need the band in video! We took some scenes out of the DVD, which has been recorded while our last Japan tour, there are some nice pictures in there and put it together that in the end we have something to show the fans. It went ok but you can’t compare it to the original plan which would have been awesome. Yeah, that’s a very sad story for the band and for the fans.
Ok, there’s a situation: a young man listen to Fields Of Blood, he got interested with the history of Scotland, the battles, the heroism and he want to learn about it more. What would you recommend him, where should he start?
Well, the best thing would be to visit Scotland. Because when you in this country, there are so many historic places, museums where you can see everything what’s important regarding this country. Of course the Internet is a great place as well but I think to be in this country, breathe the air and see the highlands is totally different from what you will see on the Internet. Maybe in VR glasses it will be pretty similar; I hope so because you don’t have to enter the airplane… Maybe the next or second-next generation after us will do so but at the moment I guess it’s best to visit these places.
Let’s go back from Scotland to nowadays. Two years ago in interview to XS Rock you said: Spotify and friends ruined the commercial factor of record companies and artists. We are the last dinosaurs, who can live on music, but there will be no more bands in the future, who will be able to. So if you do have the chance to take a different profession, take it. Did something changed since then?
Well, what you’ve said sounds a lot like me. (laughing)
It’s totally your quote; I can give you a link if you want
No-no, I’m sure I was the one who said that. Unfortunately it doesn’t change; it’s getting worse because the main problem is… You see, the early days you record an album, you release it and you went on tour to promote it because the album was the part where we can earn most money – you selling vinyls, selling CDs and something like that. Now it’s a complete opposite: you do a record to have a reason to go on tour because the only part where you can earn money now, two parts, actually are playing live and selling the merchandise. The money you earn by selling records or streaming portals or whatever it is just about average that you can pay for the rent of the recording studios and all that stuff behind. There’s no chance for earning money selling records anymore. So the problem is every band is on tour, it’s only on tour. Take Sabaton: they play 300 shows a year.
Let’s say Germany, almost every city got two or three shows every day! Who will be able to visit all these shows? They grab the fans from the other bands and instead of two venues filled up with, let’s say, 300 people you got the venue filled with 150 people because the one half said “I’ll go to this act” and the other half said “I’ll go to the other act” and now the live part became more problem as well. So merchandise is the only one or last part we can earn real money. When your band was “hot”, really lot of energy in there, maybe in the middle of your twenties, how will you earn money? Of course you can play live but to get a bigger location or to get more fans, you have to play in bigger location as a support band or whatever. It’s very-very difficult and the situation we got with the streaming portals like Spotify is absolutely horrible, you can’t imagine.
For example, the minimum income in the U.S. as far as I know is something like 1300$ (7.25$ per hour according to Wikipedia). To get this for an artist by streaming portal like Spotify, a song you wrote has to be played 50 million times. So imagine how many people have to listen to your songs to get 50 million! It’s impossible! And we talk about minimum income. Maybe acts like Tailor Swift can do it but I think they got enough money from other parts. It’s horrible! So if somebody asks me what can I do to get a professional artist, I still say: “do music as a hobby and get a daytime job to get your income, to feed your family and pay the rent” and I hate to say it. When you put all energy in the music and it doesn’t work then you have to do very-very bad jobs. That’s ruins the whole energy you put in the music and that’s the worst thing that can happen to a musician.
Well… I wasn’t expect that something will change from your answer two years ago but I also wasn’t expect for the answer in such pessimistic way.
That’s very-very sad. As I said, the bands like Grave Digger, we’re the lucky ones. We can do our living on music still and I hope this will be until we’re gone but the next generation, they are the losers and that’s very sad story.
In your opinion and in your experience, is there any chance for things will change somehow or not?
No, I don’t think so. It depends on two or three different views on the music, I think. It depends, of course, on the Internet – it’s the most important invention on the last years and nothing works without it. You got great chances to earn money and you got great chances to make contact with your fans: for example, this interview we do at the moment won’t be possible without the Internet because it’s Skype and that’s great, I love it. But everything you can put in the digital format, let’s say, movies, music and anything, will be something, which can be distributed by the Internet. And as soon as it’s in the Internet, somebody will say “I wanna have this for free, or maybe I’ll put some little money in there”; it should be free or very-very cheap and that’s the basic part for companies like Spotify. Don’t get me wrong, I think Apple Music of Napster, for example, who don’t do this free-account stuff, I’m fine with them. I’m talking about Spotify and Deezer, they are the only one who doing this complete free and that’s, for my opinion, should be forbidden. When you are a customer and you play a song via Spotify with a premium account when you pay 10$ a month or so, then the record company will get something about one cent for each song. If you do the same thing with a free account, you got only 10% of this, so the whole album with 10 songs will be one cent, it depends on what account you have. And I think there should be a minimum pay for the artists, for the record companies or whatever, so maybe the streaming portals have to raise the streaming prices. For example, like Spotify said “sorry, we have to pay more, we have to put it on 30$ a month”. Then Amazon said “I don’t need that! I don’t need to raise the prices” and everybody said: ok, let’s leave Spotify and go the Amazon Music. And nobody in the world will tell Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, how he has to set up the prices for his company. So I think this will never change.
The only thing is maybe some governments will recognize that if you don’t have any artists that can’t live on music, there will not be good music in the future. And maybe there are some programs where professional artists will get a minimum income by government, this could be help. That’s for example was something in Sweden many years ago: if you are a professional artists, then you get a minimum income by the government. That was the time in the 80s with tons of perfect musicians and guitar players like Malmsteen: they had free time, they could practice the guitar the whole day through because they had a minimum income by the government.
Let’s get back to Grave Digger. You release an album in two years. Is this your typical working rhythm or is it something else?
It’s our regular period of time because we still doing the old style, we’re not just an oldschool Metal band, we also do an old schedule, which means a new album upcoming, touring-touring-touring, upcoming here and a new album. So this is the way many bands worked in early days, well, the early days it was each year a new album. It happens naturally.
Did you ever wanted to have a break form it?
No, maybe the opposite because when we had a press-release some weeks ago because of shutdown and problem you can’t play any live shows we found it’ll be good thing. We decided to do a new Grave Digger album every year so far as we’re not allowed to play live. Instead of sitting around and wait for something we can write new songs and record new albums. So if it’ll still be forbidden to play show for example 2021 or whatever or until the end of the year, there will be new Grave Digger album in 2021.
Wow, great! Are you already working on it or you just have some ideas?
Yes, we’re already working on it, that’s right! That’s funny story indeed with the album The Living Dead. When we gave the master recordings to the record company, it’s always takes some weeks or months until the album will be released. We started with the work, with the composing of Fields Of Blood before the album The Living Dead has been released. And at the same moment Chris and I, we’ve already worked for a month before Fields Of Blood has released! We already have the concept of the new album, so we working on it.
By the way, on your previous album, The Living Dead there is the song called “Zombie Dance” that you recorded with Russkaja. That number was totally unexpected for me. Whose idea was to make it?
Sometimes some special things happen to Grave Digger. The fact was Chris came up with an idea and he gave me a call.
– Axel, I’d like to do a real party song! We need a party song where people can dance and sing and stuff like that.
– Hm, well, Chris, you know, we are known as very traditional oldschool True German Heavy Metal band and you wanna do a party song?
Then I wanted to do a joke and said:
– Well, then let’s do a polka!” which I meant as kidding and Chris said:
– Yeah, it’s a good idea
– You’re kidding!
– No! Let’s do a polka!
– I can compose you everything you’d like to have, of course I can do a polka (and I love polka, to be honest) but you think it’s the right thing for Grave Digger?
– Yeah, let’s do it!
– Ok, great, let’s do it, I love it.
So I composed a complete polka, Chris did the lyrics and the hooks, we did together the arrangements and when the song was written, we were very proud and presented it to the rest of the band members and you should have seen the faces! (laughing)
They were shocked?
“What the f*ck did you do? Are you mad? Are you crazy?” and I said: “Hey, we are Grave Digger! We’re allowed to do everything we’d like to!”
Then I said: “Of course, this will polarize the fans once again, 50% will hate it, 50% will love it but everybody will talk about it.” It was exactly that way but to be honest I didn’t expect some very-very hard words of some hard fans, which absolutely didn’t understand what we did. This was the first single we put out as a video and we had some really bad words. Somebody told that the whole album will be a polka album without hearing the album, only expecting the polka album and said we’re ruined the Heavy Metal and we’re the really bad guys and what a crap and whatever. But I said: “Hey! The rest of the album is pure Grave Digger German True Heavy Metal and that’s one party song. If you don’t like, it’s ok with me so skip it or don’t listen to it, whatever. But speaking at this kind of words to the band that’s something I can’t take.” When I was a kid or when I grow up, I loved Van Halen. And, for example, if I had a chance to get in contact with Eddie Van Halen by the Internet and there was a song maybe I didn’t like, let’s say “Jump” because that was great for the band, I’ll never ever thought about talking with these bad words to such a good guitar player as Eddie Van Halen. But people think: “Ok, I can get in contact with them by Facebook, by YouTube and I gonna tell them what crap they are!” Hey, man! Show some respect! And by the way “Zombie Dance” is the second most played title of Grave Digger ever. Of course on rank number one is “Rebellion”. On rank two, before “Heavy Metal Breakdown” it’s “Zombie Dance”. So, looks like we did something right with this song!
Of course I can completely understand the fans because they know Grave Digger for certain kind of sound and a certain kind of songwriting. For example, when I look to AC/DC I expect special kind of sound and songwriting what I want from AC/DC.
But that’s the problem: when you listen to AC/DC, sometimes you can’t understand which album exactly you listen to. You can be sure that you listen to AC/DC but you can’t be sure about the album sometimes!
Or maybe you listen to the last Airborne album, which is nothing but exact clone copy to an old AC/DC album but that’s another story, I know what you mean. Anyway, if somebody says “I don’t like the song”, that’s absolutely cool with me; there is no problem, of course, why not! But these hard words in the Internet, they are definitely on the wrong place.
Ok, let’s get back to unpleasant topic for all of us and talk about live shows that I hope will return next year. Before COVID-19 did you ever planned to play all the “Scotland Trilogy” live?
Yes. Maybe not all songs but we had very big plans for this year because we were booked on most of the biggest festivals here in Europe like Wacken Open Air or the Rock Hard Festival, which are all in Germany and we had a plan to do a pure Scotland show with the right outfits on stage. We had lots of real bagpipes on stage performing with us. There is a German bagpipe orchestra containing 60 people – that’s really huge and loud as hell you can’t imagine. They had to perform with us on Wacken Open Air and we had some drummers from France, who did historic drums on the album as well. But the problem is if we want to play the whole trilogy of the three albums, it will be two hours of playtime and I don’t think we’ll have two hours play in Wacken so we hope to do this next year in 2021. Looks good so far but it depends on the circumstances. So that there is one year cut out of history and starting everything what was planned for 2020 in 2021.
Grave Digger’s perfect, ideal show, what is it? How should it be?
A perfect show… I think we already had it. No matter which band member you ask, I’m pretty sure they will all say the most awesome show Grave Digger ever did was the headliner of Wacken Open Air 2010 show, you can see it on YouTube. Everything was perfect on that day! The audience was perfect, the sound was perfect, we had a lot of guest stars, guest singers: Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian, Doro Pesch and many more. And everything went well, which was a real challenge. I can tell you stories that would be two hours long or whatever. It really went well and this was a really perfect show. If we ever can get close to this one, we’ll be very happy. But we are lucky guys to have the perfect show and it was great. You see it on YouTube and you see the response of the audience, you see that something magical happened there.
Is the situation Grave Digger goes to the tour as the support act is possible or not?
We did support tour this year; we had two U.S.A. tours as a support of our friends Blind Guardian. If the bands fit together and we can play bigger venues than we can play as a headliner, of course! It always depends on when, where, how the money but we had no problems to do support shows, with smaller backlines, we don’t mind. As long as people like it we can play everywhere. That’s the fine thing for a band like Grave Digger: we don’t have any backing tracks or maybe some little keyboard backing tracks but we can play with the horrible sound in horrible places with bad stages – no problem, it’s always still Grave Digger. It’s good for a band and good for the fans, of course.
You already have 20 albums in your discography, the number is huge. Do you have some songs which are boring or you already tired to play them but fans still want to hear?
No. Since I’m in the band, I think there was only one show in England where we had very bad stage manager and everything went bad; there was Molly Hatchet, there was Sebastian Bach. We got in the performance time, everything was delayed and delayed and delayed and in a certain point they had to close down the stage. We went to England to perform only 25 minutes or stuff like that, so we only had time for one song and we had to decide if it’s “Heavy Metal Breakdown” or “Rebellion”. I think we chose “Heavy Metal Breakdown”, not sure but this was the only time when these two songs didn’t have been performed on the Grave Digger show. Of course we played them hundreds of times, Chris maybe thousands of times but I think when your band has some real hits, you are really lucky band because millions of other bands would give their right arm if they have hits, which everybody knows and everybody wants to hear. I don’t think if you ask Angus Young of AC/DC if he tired of playing “Highway To Hell”.
I talked to Pär from Sabaton and what he said they don’t play “Primo Victoria” on rehearse, for example, but they still play it with the crowd. But what you’ve said, I see huge respect to your fans in your words.
Absolutely! You see, when I go to a concert, of course I wanna hear the big hits. It’s our job to play what the people like to hear and of course what we like to play, so it’s a mix or something. But if you have 20 albums out like we did, then people always expect that one song they love a lot or like a lot and if we didn’t played it, it will be a disappointment. But we only have a certain time of play time; we can’t play all the songs. We have to play the big hits and for the big hits half of the time is already gone. But I still like it when the people sing the lyrics and they wave their hands and stuff. That’s why we are on stage and we have to serve what people like to hear. Not everything but the big hits, of course.
So if we’re talking about this, with such amount of songs how do you make a track-list for tour?
In regular cases Chris does. He makes the first draft and sends it to everybody so we can do our comments, discuss it but I think 80% of the song list is done by Chris. To be honest, in 99.9% it’s the same list I would do as well so it doesn’t matter who does the songs. Sometimes somebody wants to play this song a little more or you have to play this song a little more but in the end it’s Chris’ decision.
Grave Digger celebrates 40-years anniversary this year. What does this number means for you.
When you start as a band, you don’t expect 40 years of working so it’s a big thing, it’s great! We really honored that people for such a long time coming to our shows. Because when there are no fans, we can’t do albums anymore and can’t perform any longer. Of course it’s the same answer many colleagues will say as well: as long as the people like to hear what we do, buying the albums, coming to the shows and as long as our health will be able to do this profession, we’ll keep on.
And the last one: when this entire weird situation will end, what will be the first thing you will do?
Playing live, of course! We’re all scratching with our nails in the sand to get back on stage and not just bands, our crews as well: the backliners, the light technicians, the sound engineers, the booking companies, the venues, the fans, of course! That’s the main thing we’re all waiting for! It’s like standing at closed door and waiting someone to open it. The problem is that we’re the first in and last out. Our profession has been shut down at first and will be re-opening at last. So we are, the whole music culture worldwide, we are the real losers of COVID-19. Of course, the people who died of it are lot worse than we did, but we got businesses so we’re the very last one who will be allowed to get back in business. That’s pretty hard to take.
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