By David E. Gehlke
The most formidable New Wave Of British Heavy Metal Band not named IRON MAIDEN or SAXON, Newcastle, England's SATAN, has made up for lost time since their 2011 reformation. Their 1983 "Court In The Act" debut was an instant classic, but the band split for a variety of reasons — many involving their moniker. The core of guitarists Russ Tippins and Steve Ramsey and bassist Graeme English trudged through the '80s in BLIND FURY, PARIAH and SATAN again with a different singer before Ramsey and English formed folk pioneers SKYCLAD in 1990, which became their focus throughout the decade.
The perception of SATAN as NWOBHM relics changed upon the release of 2013's "Life Sentence", an album that drew a straight line to "Court In The Act" and breathed new life into the band. The trend continues with their new studio opus, "Earth Infernal", a clinic in metal guitar riffing and savvy songwriting, all with Brian Ross's smooth, clean vocal delivery atop. As Ramsey tells BLABBERMOUTH.NET, the pandemic snarled many of their plans for 2018's "Cruel Magic", but it allowed them to put more work into "Earth Infernal". The results speak for themselves.
Blabbermouth: "Earth Infernal" is loaded with riffs. Does SATAN have a bottomless pit of them?
Steve: "It's a bit strange because we had such a long hiatus from making the first record, then obviously we made that one with Mick [Jackson, vocals] [1987's 'Suspended Sentence'], but we've had such a long gap in between, if you think about something like SKYCLAD, I've written like 14 albums with them. [Laughs] We weren't really short of ideas there, either. I think with SATAN is because we didn't make all those records in the '80s that we should have made. We're still producing the ideas we would have had back then. It's basically what we would have done if we stayed together. We never felt like the business was finished. We made one album. We did the one with Mick, and even Brian is a fan of that album and the EP [1986's 'Into The Future'] we did with Mick. He said he would have loved to have sung on that as well. We've always loved the music we produced under the name SATAN. We've never had a problem coming up with new ideas."
Blabbermouth: So who's coming up with these ideas, then? Is it a combination of you and Russ? Or do the two of you bring in separate songs and have the band work them out?
Steve: "We don't have any rules. It's just who has the stuff at the time. Then, they get thrown into the pot and nobody is bothered if someone doesn't like something or doesn't want to do something or the rest of the band likes this one better than that. It's throw it in, mix it up and see what comes out. That's all the ideas we have for everything. It's very much a band decision what we do. None of us are precious. I've thrown a lot of stuff in. We actually recorded a song to the end of our recording session, but it was never released. That was the only song we wrote that didn't make it, but I didn't cry my eyes out about it. [Laughs]"
Blabbermouth: Do you buy into the notion that every riff in metal has already been created and that there are no new ideas?
Steve: "Blah. Not really. It's not just about the music. It's about how the riffs are played and what else is put with the riffs and what they're representing. There are a lot of things that make music music. There are so many ways to create a melody and a tune or a riff. It's proven in the charts that you can write the same group of chords over and over again and still come up with an idea that makes it a number one hit. Then what you do with it is so many things you can do with that idea. It's more about that than creating an original tune."
Blabbermouth: "Earth Infernal" is a live-sounding record, which suggests the five of you need to be in the same room. How did the pandemic get in the way of its creation?
Steve: "For me, I love being in the studio, but I really love playing on stage. The studio is fine for putting down something you can promote, but playing them live is where I get my passion. That was really hard. We had the American tour booked for April 2020 and it takes three months to sort visas out to tour in the States. We got to the last point when we went down to London to have our interviews in the American embassy so we could finalize the visas. We got them on that day, which was a Wednesday. We came back home to Newcastle on a Thursday and [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson announced a lockdown. Then everything was ruined. We lost a lot of money and everything was, 'Wow!' We lost a lot of money. It was a big tour, the biggest tour we did in the States. We weren't playing any shows in place of those. It was such a disappointment, then that disappointment lasted so long. Making the album made it a little easier to be able to do something. This time we had a little more time to reflect on things, so we tweaked a few songs on the way that maybe would have been put down. That wouldn't have happened if we didn't have the extra time. That little bonus is how it paid off a little bit."
Blabbermouth: How do Brian's vocals come into play when the band arranges riffs and songs? Do you ever have to yank a part because his vocals don't fit?
Steve: "No. Everything we write has the melody we're looking for. We develop a strong riff, then the song is written around the riff. We rarely come up with a melody line, a chorus, or even a lyric [we don't use]. It very much starts with a riff. We got this great riff, what we're going to do with it and how we will build around it. Most of the songs are written like that. Then the song gets tweaked and changed. The riff stays the riff and everything around it gets changed. The songs are written from scratch that way. We throw out different ideas then have bits ready. Then we'll get our pot of ideas and go, 'That bit will be good for this song.' We might pinch the key of something to fit something else. Sometimes a riff will be the centerpiece of a song rather than the main riff; it will be the middle riff we create out of one idea, then we'll upgrade the idea. That's how we make the big middle sections. We try to write songs with a verse, bridge and chorus so people can identify them as catchy songs, but they have an insane piece of music. Sometimes we'll get an idea and Russ will get it down vocally to get a feel for the melody. It's always a special time when we get Brian in and he puts the real vocals down. It's always like, 'Wow!' He still amazes us. I remember Russ and me going to a BLITZKRIEG show before Brian joined SATAN. We must have been 16, 17 years old and standing at the front of the stage going, 'Imagine getting him in our band!'"
Blabbermouth: You record your albums live, which makes SATAN an outlier these days. What are the advantages and disadvantages of recording this way?
Steve: "There aren't really that many disadvantages to it. It's got so many advantages because it's cheap. [Laughs] It's easy because we try to sound on record exactly like we do in rehearsal. We've written songs that we want to sound like we play them. More and more achieving that on this album, we didn't even send the album to [engineer] Dario Mollo in Italy. We normally send it to him and he puts some sparkle on it, but we mixed as we went along on this one. We liked its sound and thought we didn't need to do that this time. What we captured, we think we got it already. We tried to do with the other albums was record them like we would have recorded them in the '80s, then try to use the latest software that modern bands do to make the songs more crunchy. On this one, it was like, 'Nah. We'll leave it as is.' I remember we did a couple of albums in the '80s where the backing tracks before the albums were mixed. I think the BLIND FURY [1985's 'Out Of Reach'] is one, then there is one of the prior albums where the backing tracks sound better than the album. [Laughs] It ruined those records for all the treatment and sending it to New York to get cut. We liked the way it sounded before anything happened to it."
Blabbermouth: Speaking of those PARIAH albums, you just put them on Bandcamp. Was there ever a reluctance to get them out there when SATAN is still active?
Steve: "We're still proud of those records. It was a different time. That was when we were cutting our teeth when we were kids — we were in our early '20s. We were inspired by the thrash bands of the time. We love those albums. Some of them we think the sound could be better, but you're never a hundred percent happy with them. We were pleased to get them out. The only album we couldn't get back is 'Court In The Act' since we signed with Roadrunner [Records] and they owe the album in perpetuity. We'll never, ever own that record. But all the rest of them were signed for a term and we got them back. We can now license them out in different ways for a certain period of time, so that's been good."
Blabbermouth: Do you recall why you and Graham left PARIAH?
Steve: "We didn't actually leave; we split up. Mick left the band and then we decided to call it a day. We had enough. Basically, Russ had enough of the whole music business. Steamhammer, the label we were on, SPV in Germany, decided to do a cull of the bands. Anyone who was selling under a certain amount, I think it was 25,000 records, they dropped the band. We were selling like 22,000 or something. [Laughs] That would be a lot now!"
Blabbermouth: You're a label's priority if you're selling that now.
Steve: "They dropped us, then Mick left. It was, 'Are we going to start again and get another singer and record deal?' We wrote half an album, which is the one we released later with Alan [Hunter], 'Unity'. We already wrote some stuff and it sat there for a while. Russ said, 'What do you think about putting it out?' And I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' We got Alan to sing because we love his voice. That album was a one-off. It's maybe, or half of that would have been what we would have done for the next PARIAH album with Mick. After ten years, we were disillusioned with the music business."
Blabbermouth: Did any PARIAH or even SATAN riffs make it onto [SKYCLAD's 1991 debut] "The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth"?
Steve: "There would have been a couple of riffs that would have been floating around with SATAN at the time. They would have come back to me and I would have used them. I can't think now which ones, but there were a couple that I might have put in the pot."
Blabbermouth: You mentioned how SATAN is making up for lost time now. Do you wonder how the band would have done in the 1990s or 2000s?
Steve: "Yeah, I think we would have had a lot more success. It was a mistake what we did, but we were young and naïve and we were listening to the press and people telling us the name was a band move. In hindsight, if we stayed together, we would have done better."
Blabbermouth: A lot of your contemporaries from the NWOBHM are still around. Do you follow what they are doing?
Steve: "Yeah, we see them all around and doing shows. We're good friends with Kevin [Heybourne] from ANGEL WITCH and got to do a couple of shows with them, which has been fantastic because we can get together. We're massive ANGEL WITCH fans, so it's great for us to be able to do them. It's been such a pleasurable thing to go back to your childhood kind of thing and meet all the people again who are trying to do what they did when they were kids."
Blabbermouth: Does it make you appreciate SATAN a lot more?
Steve: "Yeah, some people had bad health and could not make it to this point. We're lucky to be able to come back and fulfill all the dreams we had as kids with this music. It's a very special thing for us and we'll never forget it. If someone told me I'd be playing 'Court In The Act' at this age, I'd say, 'Yeah, whatever!' [Laughs]"