With the recent release of ‘Fields Of Blood’, German Heavy Metal legends Grave Digger brought their acclaimed Scottish trilogy of albums to an end. Vocalist and founding member Chris Boltendahl talks us through the stories behind the album, as well as talking about what the band had planned for their 40th anniversary, before the world of live music came crashing down.
‘Fields Of Blood’ is the final part of Grave Digger’s Scottish trilogy, was it a case of all good things must end, or had you just had enough of us here in Scotland?!
(Laughs) Yes it’s the end! It was never planned to do a trilogy about Scottish history when we made ‘Tunes Of War’ in 1996. But two years ago I was in Scotland again, for the first time with my son, and he was 12 years old at the time. I showed him all the famous battlefields and castles, and we visited all the museums. I felt that I had to tell the people a little bit more about the history, so the story wasn’t at the end yet for me. At one of the museums I watched an old man sitting in the corner, he was working there, and I thought to myself; this guy is Edward McLean, I called him Edward McLean from the clan McLean! I saw him sleeping, and I thought; this guy is dreaming of his own history, and he’s travelling back through his history, and the concept was born at this time. The concept was to tell the people about the personal side, the emotional side of all the famous people fighting at the battlefields; Stirling, Culloden, Bannockburn, and that was more or less the idea of that.
At the end we decided, we’ve done three albums about Scottish history, we love this country, and we love bagpipes. But this time we had so many bagpipes, and we told everyone about this beautiful land, and yeah; we have to stop now because everything that we do in the future about Scotland, will more or less be something that we have already done.
With it being the 40th anniversary of the band this year, it seems the perfect time to bring the story to its conclusion.
Yeah we wanted to do something special for our 40th, and that was a good reason to do the final part about Scottish history. I fell in love with Scotland when we created ‘Tunes Of War’ and we came over on a promotional tour, for myself it was a great pleasure to do it again. I think if you listen to the album there is a lot of hot blood in it, there’s a lot of love for the history, and for the land.
Where did you visit when you were over with your son? Did you visit the Wallace Monument?
For sure, the funny thing is, 24 years ago we were at the Monument for the ‘Tunes Of War’ album and I did a photo at the top, and when we went back two years ago, I did the exact same photo in the same position. The same background with the valley, and Stirling itself, that was really great.
My boy hated me after this holiday! The first week he was totally excited, the second week he was interested, and the third week he started hating me! Last year I asked him; what about going to Scotland again? His answer was: never again! No more castles or battlefields!
Going up the 246 spiral stairs at the Wallace Monument will do that to someone!
Yes! It was fun though.
If you have studied so much about Scottish history then you might have noticed that it’s rich with tales of feuds and in-fighting? For instance George Martin loosely based the infamous “Red Wedding” scene in Game Of Thrones on the Glencoe Massacre, where the Campbell’s butchered the MacDonald’s after a night of their hospitality. Hence the phrase; “never trust a Campbell”.
Yeah that was something we sang about on the ‘Clans Will Rise Again’ (2010) album. Clans always fought amongst each other, there was a lot of trouble between them, but I think the important part is that in the end they gathered together and more or less became one army.
The concept of freedom was fascinating and led me to look at my own history. When I was a kid my parents, who are really nice people and I love them, but they are also really Christian orientated. So I was 16 and I grew my hair long, and was fighting against my parents. I was like my friend David Hasselhoff; I was looking for freedom!
Don’t hassle the Hoff! What a legend!
Back to the new album, the bagpipe sound is immense. They slot seamlessly into the songs, it didn’t sound like they were simply tacked onto the song as an afterthought. It seemed like songs such as ‘Heart Of Scotland’ were written with bagpipes in mind?
Yes, the main difference to the previous albums about Scottish history, was that on those we wrote first the heavy metal songs, and then the bagpipes. This time I told Axel (Ritt, Grave Digger guitarist): Axel, this is not the right way, we have to write melodies for the bagpipes and then edit the heavy metal songs for the bagpipes. And that is the reason why the bagpipes are “in” the music. It’s always difficult to combine heavy metal music or normal instruments with bagpipes or traditional folk instruments. On the ballad (‘Thousand Tears’) that’s uilleann pipes you hear, from Ireland, they have a fantastic sound, James Horner also used the uilleann pipes on the soundtrack for Braveheart.
Nightwish also use uilleann pipes, they add a certain texture to a metal song. What was the recording process like with the bagpipes? You had the pipers in the studio with you I believe?
We had them in the studio with us, yes. I know that Napalm Records put in the press release for the album that we recorded some parts in the Highlands, but that is not the truth (laughs)! We recorded everything in Germany, the pipers are from Hamburg and are called the Baul Muluy Pipes & Drums. It’s a full orchestra, they played with us at Wacken in 2010 when we recorded the DVD. Have you ever been in a room together with three bagpipes playing?
Not three, no. Two at the most perhaps, but even then, that would have been in a fair sized hall! They are loud!
(laughs) I never would have believed that they were such a loud instrument! But three bagpipes playing in a room! Myself and Axel were there in the room trying to explain something to them, and then they started playing! I thought that my brain was going to explode (laughs)!
When you experience them like this, you understand why more or less, it’s a war instrument. Standing in front of troops to make some noise, it is an unbelievable sound.
There was a reason why they were banned centuries ago!
Yes! We planned a big show for Wacken this year for our 40th anniversary, we had arranged a show with 50 pipers onstage; some drums. But that’s not going to happen now because of Covid-19. So we are hoping that we will be able to do it next year. The pipers are from two different groups, they will play live, maybe three or four parts where the pipes and drums play together, like they do at Edinburgh Castle. It will be a great sight for the crowd.
It’s quite an evocative sight and sound when you witness so many pipers together, one on their own is stirring enough, but a group together is something different. The pipers also appear on the incredible title track itself, at just over ten minutes in length, how much work went into getting it just right?
The idea behind that was we felt because it would be the last song written for the trilogy, that it should be an epic. We wanted to more or less present all three albums in one song, so that is why it is so long; there are some metal parts, some ballad parts, it’s up and down. We felt that if someone wanted to discover the trilogy, that they should listen to this song. The song was more than 15 minutes long at one point! But we cut it to around eleven minutes as we felt that the listener might get bored.
I grew up with my father playing bagpipe music in the house, it was his way of making sure you got out of bed in the morning! Last week was the 20th anniversary of his death, and when the pipes kicked in on ‘Fields of Blood’ I was a complete mess. Rarely has something sparked that kind of emotional reaction from me, I was floored.
Wow, on one hand that makes me glad that you felt the same as us when we wrote this track. We made it as emotional as we could. I think that everyone who listens to music, finds their own place.
Talking to you now about Scotland and I’m thinking; maybe I missed something?! But all things must come to an end and we are already working on the next concept. A fourth part would be too much, people might not accept it.
It ended on a high note though! You mentioned earlier that it was the 40th anniversary of the band, did you honestly foresee that not only would the band still be recording in 2020, but be recording albums of such high quality?
Everything that we do, is done with a lot of love, and a lot of soul. I stopped drinking and smoking 20 years ago, and from that moment on I’ve felt like it’s been a period of never ending creativity. I’m addicted to this kind of music, and I’ve felt that it’s a gift from another force that I can do this. That I can earn a living from this. How many people can say that they are able to live from their music? The only thing that I can say is; thank you to everybody for buying our music.
We are definitely missing playing live, and that contact with the people. I have no idea how they will work out live music in the end, all I know that I am missing playing live. We have to work in the end, this is our job.
Footage has just been released of Doro’s drive-in gig, is that something that Grave Digger would consider?
(laughs) No! I saw that footage, we released a statement a few weeks ago where we said; okay, we have this situation with Covid-19, but Grave Digger won’t play any streaming shows. Playing in an empty hall, with people watching on their computers, I have nothing against that if other bands want to do that, but not us. Also these drive-in shows, I don’t want to play in front of 300 cars! Heavy metal is energy, it’s power, you need a connection from the people, what should I say; scream for me…cars! Or, flash your lights for me! When I am onstage, I’m interacting with people in a very strong way, and I can’t imagine trying to do that during a streaming show; scream for me…and there is nothing back!
We will wait, and if we have to wait one year or two years, then we have to wait. As long as we have air to breathe, then okay, we will wait. All that other stuff; I won’t do that.
You mentioned earlier that you stopped drinking and smoking 20 years ago, what other ways do you look after your voice? You do put your voice through some punishment!
I’ve never done anything for my voice, no exercises, nothing. Not drinking alcohol or smoking is very healthy for your voice. When I was drinking and smoking it was a little bit harder to be on tour, but our last tour about a year ago, it was 23 shows in 24 days. If you are partying every night, and drinking and smoking, then you can’t survive that kind of schedule. But I’m going to the golf course 5 days a week, every morning I’m walking 10-12 kilometres, and that helps keep me in shape.
On the other side, I’m not living totally healthy, I’m addicted to sweets! I love chocolate and all kinds of sweets!
Snap! One last question, Judas Priest are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, do you have a favourite Priest album?
Yes, my favourite Judas Priest album has to be ‘Screaming For Vengeance’, for me, this is more or less the original Judas Priest. Everybody usually says ‘Painkiller’ but I think that is not-so Judas Priest like ‘Jawbreaker’ or the song ‘Screaming For Vengeance’ itself.
‘Fields Of Blood’ is available now through Napalm Records.
Interview – Dave
All images – courtesy of Napalm Records