While recording the new album "Hammer Damage", the mighty OMEN release through No Remorse Records "Into The Arena", a compilation of live recordings with the original line up and previously rare and unreleased demo recordings. Kenny Powell took a break of the hard studio work and shared with us some thoughts and memories from the OMEN history.
Bow down to the Axeman!
OMEN were formed in Henryetta, Oklahoma in the beginning of the 80s. Then you moved to Los Angeles with Steve Wittig and Jody Henry. What can you recall from your first years in L.A. and how did you join Savage Grace?
That is pretty close to the truth, that line up in Oklahoma was never called OMEN, though several of the songs on “Battle Cry” were based on songs we were working on. There was another member, Roger Sisson on bass and vocals, he was my life long best friend and we learned to play together. He was going to make the move to L.A. with us, but his wife threatened to divorce him at the last minute and he did not go. She divorced him any way a couple of years later and I know he regretted not going for years, it really sucked because when we got to L.A. I could not find a bass player worth a fuck or a singer. After a year of trying to find members, I was asked to join Savage Grace. I agreed to do two records with them, but I was always going back to my own band and everyone knew that. It was a good experience for me and I meet a lot of people in the music business through them, including Brian Slagel.
During that time, you met Brian Slagel from Metal Blade Records and when you parted ways with Savage Grace, Metal Blade decided to work together with OMEN. Why did you part ways with Savage Grace and how did the co-operation with Metal Blade started?
I had made friends with Brian while we were recording the Savage Grace EP. That was before the Evil Music business corrupted everyone and he was a big fan of the two songs I had written for Savage Grace record, “Battle Cry” and “Die by the Blade”. At the last minute the guys in S.G. informed me that my songs would not be on the record, and that was the escape route for me to leave. I called Brian and asked him if he would be interested in signing my project when everything was in place. He immediately told me I had a record deal to get a band together.
How did you find J.D. Kimball and what J.D. stands for? What kind of person was he?
While I was doing the Savage Grace thing, Steve and Jody had started playing in some other start up bands. Jody in a band with Steve Addler, who went on to be in Guns and Roses, and Steve in a garage band that I don't think had ever played a gig. I called both of them up and told them it was time to do what we moved to L.A. for and asked them if they had run across any decent singers. Steve invited me to their rehearsal and I could not believe what I was seeing. Really good band, good songs and a singer that was everything I had been looking for. His lyrics were right in line with what I had been writing and he was not some Hollywood pussy boy. He was Metal! The J.D. stands for John David. R.I.P.
Three classic records followed. Three landmarks for Heavy Metal music. “Battle Cry” (1984), “Warning Of Danger” (1985) and “The Curse” (1986). What can you recall from the recording sessions of these albums and what was your writing procedure during composing?
Those records happened very quickly. There was great energy and we worked very hard, rehearsing almost every night. Jody was living with me and after borrowing a bass from Brian East and pounding him every day to switch from guitar to bass we were constantly writing songs. “Battle Cry” was recorded in 7 or 8 days and the band had only been together for a few weeks. Many of the song ideas had been around for a couple of years so it was not hard to get them in order. We took a little longer with “Warning of Danger” but it was also recorded in only a couple of weeks. “The Curse” was our first time to get a decent budget and take a little time to record. The writing process has always been pretty much the same for OMEN, I usually have my ideas for the music worked out in my head, and sometimes vocal ideas and at least some of the lyrics. Jody was always good for some great bass intros or some times a partial song idea that I would help him finish. As time went on I just let J.D. take over writing most of the lyrics and he would come to rehearsal after we had the music all worked out which worked out great. Unfortunately by “The Curse” problems were creeping in, Jody and J.D. were not getting along and some personal demons were starting to creep in with J.D. That later ended in him having to leave the band.
How were things in your live shows? Did you give headline gigs in small venues? Did you play with big names of that time?
We never really toured back then, not anything like I do now. Little stints of four or five shows sometimes headlining, other times with bands like Metal Church, Lizzy Borden, Fates Warning, Slayer and even Motörhead. Ever few months we would play a show in L.A. Phoenix, San Francisco or Seattle, but we always did well in Texas for some reason. We started getting on some bigger tours after the “Nightmares” EP, but that was when everything started to spiral out of control with J.D. and it was really heart breaking for me after working so hard and accomplishing so much the first 3 years.
How were things in Heavy Metal scene of L.A. during that time?
There were times when I thought it was great and going out to the clubs to see other bands when we were not playing was a great event, a lot of comradeship in the scene between musicians, especially with some of the Metal Blade bands. But it quickly changed when things got bigger, friends that I thought were close changed and suddenly it was only business and backstabbing and lies. I had enough of it by 1989 and left for Texas. I miss some of the real friends I made there, like Bill Metoyer, but honestly I am much happier being in Europe these days. The fans and bands seem real and honest over there and really into the music not to hang out and look cool. The music is what counts to me.
“Nightmares” EP followed in 1987 and OMEN appeared somehow more thrash-y in new songs like “Nightmares” and “Shock Treatment”. Meanwhile and during the 1987 shows, you were playing some unreleased songs like “Vicious Attack”, “The Jacket” and “Era Of Crisis”, destined for an album that was never released. Instead of that, Kimball left the band and in 1988 you released “Escape To Nowhere” with different music direction. Can you explain us how were things in the band that year? What happened to these songs, why did Kimball part ways with OMEN?
I have always been a little of a closet thrasher so that was easy to work into some song ideas for “Nightmares”, some day I will probably do a full out thrash song on an OMEN record, but Epic Power Metal is what I have in my heart, I like to think that we helped to invent that genre of music. The songs you are referring to, were written after J.D. left the band, and where going to be on what turned out to be “Escape to Nowhere”. It was originally going to be titled “Era of Crisis” which ironically is the song I have been working on for the past three weeks! An updated version will be on the “Hammer Damage” record. Finally twenty five years later it will see the light of day!
As far as J.D. leaving the band it was a situation that was impossible to continue. I always thought that we would get back together at some point. I loved his song-writing and we made some epic music together. It is a complete shame that it ended the way it did. He never got to see Europe and what he helped to accomplish.
Who was responsible for the change of your music direction in “Escape To Nowhere” (a good album in my opinion), who introduced you the singer Coburn Pharr and producer Paul O’Neill?
I meet Coburn through Steve Wittig, he was a room mate at a house that we were renting, so he kind of knew most of the OMEN songs already. When things went bad with J.D. we were in the middle of a tour and he flew out and finished the tour. I think if we had done the “Era of Crisis” record with me and Bill Metoyer producing it would have been a far better record, I know what the singer for OMEN needs to sound like within what they are capable of doing better than anyone else, so it would definitely have been something totally different than “Escape...” I guess I will take responsibility for the music style changing on that record, it was not my intention, I was ready to record the heaviest, fastest OMEN record ever and I should have put my foot down on the change of styles. It was my first time to work with a producer and I just got up in the moment of doing something different. I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Paul O'Neill, I think he is a musical genius. He was perfect for Savatage and “Hall of the Mountain King” is to this day one of my very favorite records of all time. I would love to work with him again on something else, I just feel like I am the only one that should produce OMEN, it is my baby and only my warped brain understands how it works!
After that what happened and OMEN disappeared? Did you play live gigs to support this release and how were things between you and Metal blade that time?
The funny thing is that we toured more for that record than all of the other ones combined! “Thorn in your Flesh” was a radio hit in several cities for months and we did probably forty headlining shows, tour bus for the first time, we actually made money for a change. There was no support from the record company, they hated the record, and the crazy thing was that was a song that kept being thrown off the record and I fought to keep it on. It was not even finished, like about half of the songs on that album. Metal Blade pulled the budget after they heard some of the songs. Thank God for Paul O' Neill, who pulled money from his own pocket to pay for mixing the record. In the end though it was time to put OMEN on hold for a while, I was the only original member left after all of the touring, I did not want to do another record with Metal Blade, and there were three or four records left on the contract, so I just ended everything and asked to be released from the contract, which they did after a few months. It was a very depressing time for me, I realized that no matter how hard I worked at it, I could not control the actions of everyone else and that not everyone had the same passion for the band that I did. Serious reality check!
What have you done until the release of “Reopening The Gates” in 1997 and how did you come up with that album?
I was not going to have another band, too much Pain! I was thinking of producing other bands and writing songs for other artists, so I left L.A. for Dallas, TX to work for a music store chain called Guitar Center. Of course I went to see a band one night, I think it was Steve Stevens of Billy Idol, and I fucking knew I should be playing. I formed a band called Step Child with current OMEN bass player Andy Haas, I wanted to do something more for fun and not something to be so passionate about, it was lighter music, still metal by most people standards, but certainly not OMEN. It started to take off and we did a record and started playing all of the time, it was turning into a real band, had to quit my job etc. It just kind of hit me one day, if I will be serious for something it will have to be OMEN. I really did not know that OMEN had so many people that still loved the music, my son wanted to be involved, which I thought was great, but his heart was more new (at that time) U.S metal, so it kind of went in a little different direction. My heart was old school epic, but I did not want to be a dinosaur either. We did our first Euro tour ever, and every night it was one less new song, two more old songs in the set. Fucking awesome I thought, people really do care about what we did those first three or four years, I am not insane, this really was something special, something to be proud of.
When did you find out about Kimball’s passing?
I received an e-mail from his brother, maybe one or two days after he passed. I had been trying to find him for a couple of years, I wanted him to go to Europe and see what he had accomplished, I wanted to write new songs together and release an album. He had just kind of disappeared and no one that I knew could find him. His brother told me that John had been following OMEN on the internet, and wanted him to contact me after his passing, that he thought it was great that I had kept it going and that being in OMEN was something he was very proud of. Apparently he had been sick for some years, and I wish that he would have contacted me, I would have done what ever possible to get some last songs with him before it was to late. The “Into the Arena” project was something that I wanted to do to honor him. Unfortunately there were very few live recordings of OMEN With J.D. and they are probably sitting in the Metal Blade vaults. Steve Wittig found a cassette tape of the monitor mix from a show in San Antonio Texas from around 1986 and sent me a copy. It was in horrible condition, out of phase, some gaps in the songs where the monitor guy was cutting it off and on, but all I had of him live. I worked on this for over a year, finding a little slice to move in from another part of the song to fill the hole, recording it over and over again to pick out music or voice, so I could up the E.Q. So as to hear everything. There are no overdubs of new music, everything is from that shitty cassette and am very proud to have brought it back to life so fans can hear it after all of these years. And by the way, the new OMEN record that will be out soon “Hammer Damage” that was the name of a certain garage band all those years ago, it will be my final recorded tribute to Mr. Kimball, but I know he will be with us in spirit every time we all sing along to songs like “Teeth of the Hydra” or “In The Arena”.
Your latest studio album (until now, August 2012) is “Eternal Black Dawn”. Give us all the info about its release and the years that followed with all the live shows around the globe, South America, Germany, Greece and festivals like Keep It True and Up The Hammers.
I feel that “Eternal Black Dawn” was an important step in getting OMEN back on track. I did all of the recording myself at the OMEN studio and it was a great learning experience. It took Kevin a while to get into the OMEN style, but I felt like he did a good job, I just kept sending him back home with the first three records until it clicked. It open a lot of doors for the band and I was hoping to keep that line up for the next record. But as I have found out from the past, not everyone shares the passion. Rick and Andy were the first to leave, Rick to start his own business, Andy had Three kids to raise, Kevin stayed on for a lot of the tours, but when we started to work on the new album, it was apparent that his priority was his own band. I can relate to that, I did the same with Savage Grace, and I just did not want to work around his busy schedule. I wanted the new OMEN record to be the number one priority. All in all, EBD was a good experience for me.
“Eternal Black Dawn” singer Kevin Goocher left the band, George Call from ASKA came, you gave lot of live shows together and I really liked his voice, and now a new singer is in the band, Matt Story. How did you meet Matt and what the future holds for OMEN.
To set the record straight, two people have left Omen on their own, Rick Murray, and Andy Haas. Andy is back in the band, his kids are old enough now to not need constant attention. I hate changing members worse than anything else in the world, especially singers, which I seem to have bad luck with. I don't like to air dirty laundry, I don't find it productive. If you want to be in OMEN, I expect only one thing, if you commit to something then I expect that you will do everything in your power to live up to those commitments. This is my life now, I have dedicated myself to OMEN for as long as I can physically continue to do it. As I have said, I know that everyone is not as committed as I am, I do not expect that. With the exception of the last three members, I hold no ill will towards anyone, but time and again people made commitments, that ended up costing me, or I should say my wife, who bust's her ass for me to be able to do this, thousands of dollars, damaged my reputation, which is the most important to me, because anyone that knows me, knows that if I say I will do it, I will do it or I will die trying. I tried everything in my power to get the last singer on the new album, but after three years of trying, I got a half ass effort on one song, and the excuses that, “don't really want to do this, because it does not matter what I do, people will say it is not as good as J.D. lets just keep touring with the old songs”. I don't need that, I still have a lot of gas in my tank, and I will never stop playing those songs, I love them. I am super happy with what Matt has done on the new record. He actually listens to what I have to say and I hope he is the last singer in OMEN, but I know the facts, you don't make any money in this band, people have families, travelling is a bitch and not for pussies, I always tell everyone, it is 23 hours of hell for one hour of glory, you better be willing to pay that price or you will not last long. For me, it's well worth it, and would not want to do anything else with my life.
Which are the mistakes of your past, that knowing them now, you would change?
You can not change the past, you can only hope to learn from it.
And which are the best moments in OMEN history?
Those are still to come!
This interview is also published in the limited to 100 copies
"Into The Arena" box set - 2012