The NWOBHM Files
Being one of the greatest British Heavy Metal bands formed in the 80s, during the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, brothers Dave Wilkinson (vocals) and Neil Wilkinson (guitar), speak to Crystal Logic about everything around Spartan Warrior, in the most complete interview taken so far for this great band.
How did you come up with the name?
Dave: Originally the band was called Deceiver. At that stage, the band members were Gordon Webster (drums), Tom Spencer (bass) Dave Wilkinson (vocals) Pat Thompson (guitar) and Gordon Craig (guitar). It was at the stage that Neil Wilkinson and John Stormont joined the band each on guitar that we decided to have a fresh start and a change of name. Gordon Webster was very much interested in Greek History and it was he who suggested the name "Spartan Warrior". For myself, I only knew a little about the Spartan culture at the time but what I did know was that their society had honesty and integrity at its heart... and a real hard edge too. That I think suited us... it still does and we try very hard to live up to that.
I want to know from you guys, how did you spend your free time at late 70s – early 80s in England, before you start your band. Which are your memories from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement? Bands, rock clubs, gigs, etc…
Dave: I left school in 1978. Neil is two years younger than me so he was still at school when we formed our first band together who were called Easy Prey. We actually wrote a version of “Mercenary” whilst in that band... I think the lyrics remained unchanged when we used them in the song of the same title in Spartan Warrior. Most of my spare time at that point (1978- 1980) I spent hanging out with friends, drinking and watching bands. I used to watch the likes of Saxon, White Spirit (Janick Gers) and Raven most weekends then at one club or another. I also listened to a lot of music in my spare time... just about anything that I could get my hands on. I built up quite a large collection of vinyls which I still have. My favourite bands at that time were Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Van Halen, Rush and Judas Priest. Of the NWOBHM bands of the time that surfaced around 1979/1980 I was only really a big fan of Diamond Head, Samson and Iron Maiden. I saw a lot of gigs some large and some small... some in clubs and bars but mostly at a venue called Newcastle City Hall. Amongst the club and bar gigs of note were AC/DC, UFO, Marseille, Saxon and Iron Maiden all between 1978 and 1980. At the City Hall I saw just about every band you can imagine, Rainbow, Rush, Van Halen, Judas Priest, MSG, Scorpions, Motörhead, Diamond Head and Thin Lizzy... There was a time when I virtually lived in that place.
Neil: How did I spend my time? Well you have to remember that in the late 70s I was still at school. I was quite into skateboarding but I would say it was around then that I became really serious about playing music and that’s when me and Dave formed our 1st band with some school mates. I think I was about 14 then so it will have been around 1978, maybe 79. I did spend a lot of time practicing guitar and when I joined Spartan Warrior I put all my time into that. Apart from that it was just all the usual stuff you hanging about with friends and going out to gigs. The places I would go to see bands were The Old 29 pub in Sunderland and also Sunderland Mayfair that always had name bands on. At first I used to have to sneak in being under-aged and that… he he. I saw some great bands locally. In terms of NWOBHM I went to a gig to see Mythra and Hellenbach and The Tygers were always on. There was loads of NWOBHM going on where we lived and a lot of them are still going now with us included!
So, when did you start and what made you play music?
Neil: I was always keen on music even when I was 4/5 years old. I don’t know what it was I just loved it. I had loads of different instruments as presents for birthdays and that but obviously I settled on guitar, gutted really because I wanted to be a drummer! Still once I got into guitar at about 5 years old I didn’t really think about playing anything else. Later on as I got into heavy music I just found the whole thing very exciting and I just knew that I had to play in a band. I think the thing that really made me want to get seriously into it was going to see my 1st live gig, I just had to do it!
How did you get in touch with Guardian Records for your first album “Steel ‘n’ Chains” and what do you remember from the writing and production procedure?
Neil: Well I heard about Guardian through a friend of mine who said that she’d seen an ad looking for bands. Her sister’s boyfriend also had a copy of a compilation album from Guardian called Roksnax or Roxcallibur – something like that (editor’s info: it was “Roksnax”, a split LP with Saracen, Samurai and Hollow Ground). Anyway by this time I was playing with Spartan Warrior and I told the lads about it and we all agreed that we should contact the studio to see if they would be interested in putting 1 or 2 songs on the next compilation album. So we recorded a rehearsal on cassette and went to Guardian so that terry could listen to them and that’s when he chose “Steel n Chains” and “Easy Prey” for the “Pure Overkill” album (editor’s info: “Easy Prey” was also listed under the title “Comes As No Surprise”).As far as writing goes, we would just come up with stuff at practices so it was fairly straight forward although I would also write songs on my own as did the others, so it was a bit of a mixture. Again production was very straight forward and “Steel n Chains” was actually an album of demos and was done as and when we could afford it, so we would usually do 2 songs a session and mixed it the same day.
At the time of its release (1983) New Wave of British Heavy Metal was starting to fade and few bands continued (and fewer became really big). How things were in England at that time and how was your first album accepted by fans and press?
Dave: The first album “Steel n Chains” was a real pleasure to record. By that time John Stormont had left and had a spell with Jess Cox (Tygers of Pan Tang) and Battleaxe. We had recruited Paul Swaddle to play guitar alongside Neil and Paul was a real nice guy and a stunning guitar player. The album was recorded two songs a day and pretty much live. Although it’s a bit raw I still love it today... Good memories. As I recall we had a great response locally and I know we featured on local radio quite a bit on the stations Rock Show which went out on Saturday night into the early hours of Sunday morning. From what I saw in the music press (Kerrang) we had quite a positive response too but I have to confess personally I wasn't really paying attention to what was going on around us and I was quite content just doing what we always did. I remember being told to play things down, that big things were going to happen for us and the more we kept away from the music press the more interest their seemed to be... I suppose it was a bit of management style hype... a bit cloak and dagger and it really didn't interest me. It was a huge wake up call when I was asked to quit my job and go professional with Spartan Warrior when we signed to Roadrunner. I had just got married and had a huge financial commitment so that was never going to be easy. After we had done the second album for Roadrunner things looked as if they might just take off and that scared the hell out of me... so I got the hell out of it. Part of me wishes that I hadn't ... who is to say whether we would have been a major success or an outright failure ... I just couldn’t run that risk.
Neil: I think the band was very well received and we would have done well if we had stayed together and also the fact that NWOBHM was coming to an end didn’t do us any favors either.
Guardian Records released also a split compilation called “Pure Overkill” with you, and had in its roster some other great bands also, like Satan, Incubus and Mythra. Tell us a few words about them.
Dave: I really didn't know anything at all about the other bands on “Pure Overkill”, that came out before “Steel n Chains” album. I remember meeting Incubus in the studio... they were really nice guys and I loved their contribution to “Pure Overkill” too. I also really loved Risk… they put down a class track on that album.
Neil: Its difficult to say really because the only one of those bands I ever met was Incubus. They seemed ok lads but that’s about all I can tell you about them.
How was a Spartan Warrior live show back then?
Dave: Spartan Warrior live back then was great fun: we all got on really well: we loved playing and I think that we were very laid back in our approach... I don't recall anything regimented about our approach and we weren't self critical or analytical back then either. I think that we are much more self aware now and far more driven in our approach... Neil makes sure of that and there is never anything that is second best… never !
Neil: Pretty much the same as it is now! We always do our best when we play and I don’t think that will ever change. Someone who had seen us at Headbangers Open in 2011 left a comment on a YouTube clip saying “Stormer the opening song at HOA it nearly ripped my head off!” Well we view that as job done and I think we play the same now as we did back then if you know what I mean…
Which were the best live shows you attend in England?
Dave: The best live shows that I saw back then I think would have been Iron Maiden on the Powerslave Tour, Ozzy Osbourne with Blizzard of Oz, Queensryche and Dio.
Neil: Tricky! There were so many. I’ve got to say seeing Randy Rhoads with Ozzy was a treat and also the UFO gigs and MSG gigs just because Michael Schenker is my favourite guitarist. Seeing Saxon playing bars when they were called Son Of A Bitch was good and locally Raven used to get on The Mayfair and The Old 29 a lot.
In 1984 you joined Roadrunner Records for your second album, “Spartan Warrior”. How did you get in touch with a US record label?
Neil: Well, the Roadrunner deal came on the back of “Steel n Chains”. Terry was in touch with them and when they asked if he had any interesting bands he put us forward. Mind that Roadrunner wasn’t a US label, they were operating from Holland. It was good for us to do and it was definitely a step up for us and we still benefit from being a Roadrunner band to this day. I don’t think that was any other band from our area that signed directly to Roadrunner, although I think they lisenced some other band from other companies. Not many people know but we actually did a compilation with Roadrunner called “The Metal Machine” with bands like Lee Aaron, VoiVod, Slayer and Cirith Ungol being on there too! Wish I could get a copy of that!
And what about the music and the recording procedure for that one?
Neil: The production on the 2nd album was more involved .We though a lot more about the song structure and harmony guitar parts were played as overdubs. As far as the music goes it’s a bit strange in as much as some of the songs on the 2nd album were older than the songs on “Steel n Chains”. The reason for this was that we got the Roadrunner deal just as we had finished recording “Steel n Chains” so we had to pick songs that we had decided not to use on the first album, but there were also newer songs that we had written while we were recording “Steel N Chains”. “Mercenary”, “Black Widow”, “French Girls” and “Broken Promises” were all older songs.
Most of the times, the band titled album is the first one, but you made it different! How did that came up?
Dave: The second album was supposed to be called “Assassin”. I don't know what happened about that... We recorded the album, set up the concept and made our wishes known and then the album appeared in the shops, untitled and with artwork that we had never seen before.
After a while you disbanded. Why did this happen?
Dave: I left the band after the second album came out. I had just got married and I simply couldn't commit to the band anymore. The other guys carried on and recruited another singer but I think that they started to move in a different direction and Paul Swaddle also left after a while. I know that Neil, Tom and Gordon carried on writing and recording demos and I even went back and recorded four tracks with all four of the original boys on a demo tape (a copy of which I still have) . I think that eventually things drifted and fell apart and that was that. I have to accept the blame for that... If I had stayed, I don't think that the band would have split and there would probably have been a tour and a third album at that point.
Neil: There were a few reasons. I think life and responsibility got in the way for some band members and there was some friction though not between the band or Roadrunner and it was that which caused Dave to quit. After that it wasn’t really the same and then Roadrunner said that they wanted us to play “Devil Music” so that was that! We tried to keep going for a while after but then Paul went. After that it sort of just faded away.
What have you done all these years until your reunion in the mid 00s? Did you follow the Heavy Metal music evolution worldwide?
Dave: I dropped out of the music business completely. I pursued a career outside music... and I am still married and I have two children that I adore.
I never lost touch with music... I remained a fan and at some time around 2005 I started singing in a band again… nothing serious… just good fun. It didn't take long though for Neil to reform Spartan Warrior and he and I started writing and recording demos before we approached Tom and then Gordon: the result was the release of “Behind Closed Eyes” in 2010 with shows at Hard Rock Hell in Wales and Headbangers Open Air in Germany.
Neil: Well I kept playing! Mostly did covers with friends but I kept writing music and made rough demos for no reason other than I liked doing it. Just before I reformed Spartan Warrior I played in Waysted and wrote songs for their last album “The Harsh Reality” but when that ended I knew I wanted to do Spartan again. As far as following the metal scene I always have.
How did you decide to reunite and when did this exactly happen? Also, this is one of the few times when a (let’s say) small band - and not a huge mainstream name - is reunited with almost the original line-up, right?
Neil: Well it was after I had finished with Waysted, so I think it was around 2008. Like I said earlier having done stuff with Waysted, I knew I wanted to get Spartan going again. I had songs so I just contacted the lads to see who would want to do it. At first only Dave agreed but after hearing the ideas Tom and then Gordon came on board. Paul wasn’t able to do it although I think he would have liked to. It was important to me that we did the new album with as much of the original line up as possible so I decided to do all the guitars myself and then recruit a 2nd guitarist once we started to play live again, so to get 4 out of 5 members was quite an achievement!
In 2010 you returned in discography with your third album, “Behind Closed Eyes”. All the songs there are new ones or some of them are older? Do you have any leftovers from the 80s?
Neil: The songs on “Behind Closed Eyes” are a mix of ancient old and new. The oldest song on there is “Never Take Me Alive” which I wrote in 1983 and was originally recorded for “Steel n Chains” but Terry didn’t think that the song worked. “Tear Out Your Heart” is from about 1987 and “Last Man Standing” was written in 1996. The rest of the songs are much more recent from about 2007 onwards with some of the songs being written as we recorded them – “Flesh and Blood” being one of them. We’re busy working on the next album at the moment and I’m always listening to old ideas that we never used as well as working on new stuff so nothing gets ruled out when it comes to song writing really.
How easy or difficult is for a traditional Heavy Metal band to survive in England, today?
Dave: It is very very difficult to survive as a band in the current climate. It costs money to run a band, to travel and to record and for some reason these days everyone wants music for nothing... The availability of free downloads can very easily be the death of a band who are not that commercially successful. It's something of a cliché to say that Spartan Warrior aren't in it for the money, but like many other bands like us that is true... It would be great to be able to make a living doing this but it simply doesn't pay. So we work our day jobs, we play when and where we can and we love each others company, the people that we play for and meet and just doing what we do.
Neil: Financially, extremely difficult. Bands cost money to run and what with free downloading it can make life for a band practically impossible, having said that I do this mostly because I like playing. In recent years in the UK I’ve seen support growing for our style of music with gigs and festivals being more and more well attended, so hopefully things are on the up and bands like us will be able to make ends meet. At least we are fortunate enough to have our previous albums that have kept people interested in us, but I have friends in other bands starting out and its very difficult for them, which is a shame.
Which are the best moments in the history of Spartan Warrior?
Dave: The best moments for Spartan Warrior... I loved playing Headbangers Open Air in Germany in 2010 and I loved reforming with Neil, Tom and Gordon recording and releasing “Behind Closed Eyes”. I have special moments every time I play with Spartan Warrior now. We have James Chartlon on drums, Dan Rochester on Guitar and we have Tim Morton on bass and every show we play together, every rehearsal and every recording session are just the best times ever... I love being in this band with these guys and the best part is that it just gets better and better. I'm not going anywhere this time, I'm here until they nail down the lid on my coffin!
Neil: For me it was playing HOA in 2011. We were 1st band of the last day. On what was our first major gig since reforming I was amazed when we opened to a full field – unbelievable and ill never forget it.
So, what the future holds for you?
Dave: We have started writing for the fourth album. We have three new songs recorded as demos and another two completely written. Next step is to deal and record or just do it ourselves and put it out. There's no hurry with this one but it'll be worth the wait... It's going to be explosive, man!
Neil: More of the same! We’re working on more gigs more festivals and also on the next album. We’ve also had some line up changes since I reformed the band. First both Tom and Gordon went and we replaced them with James Charlton (drums) and Dan Rochester (bass). More recently though Dan has replaced Mark on guitar as Dan was originally a guitarist. So, to replace Dan we have only just recruited Tim Morton. Now we have a full line up again we will be getting to grips with getting the new album done so watch this space! I know that me and Dave feel that we have a very strong fresh line up so its full steam ahead!
Last wish / message for everyone…
Dave: My last words to you are these:
To my band mates Neil, Dan, Tim and James... I love you boys.
To metal fans everywhere, I hope that life is good to you all, stay hungry, stay loud and stay proud... See ya in 2013!
Neil: Since reforming Spartan Warrior I have been amazed at just how much support this band has from family friends promoters and fans. I would just like to say a big thank you to everyone for their support - it really does make it all worth while! Once again thank you my metal friends. I hope to see you all soon!!! Metal on!
Photo by Chris Jones