By David E. Gehlke
Influential German thrashers SODOM are ringing in their 40th anniversary with the aptly named "40 Years At War – The Greatest Hell Of Sodom", a collection of deep cuts from a catalog that has withstood the test of time. SODOM may occasionally get overshadowed by their countrymen in KREATOR and DESTRUCTION, but there is little disputing how much the band has meant to the metal underground — particularly the Norwegian black metal scene that absorbed the rawness from their "In The Sign Of Evil" EP and "Obsessed By Cruelty" full-length. If anything, "40 Years At War" symbolizes the band's unflinching, straight-ahead consistency, which has been led since its 1982 inception by bassist / vocalist Thomas "Angelripper" Such.
SODOM maintains a stable place as European tour headliners and on festival bills. Across the pond is an entirely different manner. The band has endured recent canceled North American tours and missed festival appearances for various reasons that continue to perplex Such. Whether they will make it back for awaiting American and Canadian fans remains to be seen, but as Such would tell BLABBERMOUTH.NET, it's not for the lack of trying. In the here and now, he has the "40 Years At War" set to promote and plans for future SODOM albums that may or may not include a new record label partner.
Blabbermouth: SODOM has reached the 40-year milestone. Was there ever a period when you didn't think the band would make it?
Thomas: "There were a lot of lineup changes. After 40 years, I regret nothing. I always made the right decision at the time. When we started the band, we never imagined we'd be in the scene for 40 years or get a record deal in '84. When we got our deal, everything changed. We got to work in a professional studio. The 40 years have gone by so fast and now I'm sitting here talking to you."
Blabbermouth: You've also managed to stick with the same record company for most of your career, SPV.
Thomas: "Yeah, it was [SPV metal/hard rock sub-label] Steamhammer. When the 'In The Sign Of Evil' album came out, they made a record label just for SODOM, Devil's Game, because Manfred Schütz, the chief of SPV, didn't want to release this noise on Steamhammer, which was a sign for high-quality music. But we had a break from them in '96. We went to G.U.N. Records. We released 'Til Death Do Us Unite' and 'Code Red'. We came back to SPV with 'M-16' in 2001. It's our record company. We've worked together through all the decades. They always do a great job. Never change a winning team. Next year is our last option with SPV. We'll release another album and then I'm a free man. We can sign a new deal. We're talking about what we're doing for the future."
Blabbermouth: Noise Records was the other competing German label at the time. Were you in touch with Karl-Ulrich Walterbach? Ever wonder how your career would have turned out if you had signed with them instead?
Thomas: "I knew Karl. We sent our second demo to him and he didn't want to sign us. Noise Records had the first sampler, 'Rock From Hell', and SODOM was supposed to be a part of it. At the same time, I met Manfred. He was cool and said, 'Okay, SODOM is a band I don't know what to do with, but I want to give you a chance to record a couple of songs.' I think we would have been the same had we signed with Noise. KREATOR, CELTIC FROST and HELLHAMMER had a lot of problems with Noise. But we also had problems with SPV. During this time, we were a young band. We signed every contract [put in front of us]. We signed a contract to get a case of beer. [Laughs] I'm now more into the music business. When I sign a contract, I take it to my lawyer and he'll tell me to sign it or change something. Back then, we wanted to get our beer. Manfred later gave me a chance to make money from music when I quit my job in the coal mine. He said, 'I'll give you a check every month so you can make music and spend more time with the band touring and recording.' It was a great chance for me. It was the best thing in my musical career to stop working in a coal mine and make money from music. It was great."
Blabbermouth: You unearthed some hidden gems with "40 Years At War". Did you start with a list of songs and then narrow it down? Or did you have an idea beforehand of what you wanted to record?
Thomas: "When we decided to record one song from each album, we took a lot of time to listen to all of our albums — the whole band. I didn't want to do the 'hit' singles from every album. We chose underrated songs. Some we never played live or rehearsed, which was really funny. The thing is, this helps us choose songs for the upcoming tour. We want to change the set from time to time and show-to-show. People are waiting for this stuff. When we play a festival and have 45 minutes, we have to play the classics and support the latest release. When we do a headlining show, we play for two hours. We can change and people want to hear songs like 'Body Parts'. On our upcoming tour in Germany in December, we'll play 'Body Parts' and 'In War And Pieces'. It's interesting for the fans."
Blabbermouth: You still have a pretty new lineup with Frank (Blackfire, guitar),who returned to the band and newer guys Yorck (Segatz, guitar) and Toni (Merkel, drums). What did they bring to the songs?
Thomas: "It's funny: Toni is a big Witchhunter [early SODOM drummer Christian Johannes Dudek] fan. He loves his drumming. Witchhunter created his own style for drumming. You can compare him to Philthy [Phil Taylor] from MOTÖRHEAD. It's not perfect all the time. It was funny when we re-recorded songs from 'Obsessed By Cruelty' and 'In The Sign Of Evil'. Toni had to realize the songs were completely out of time. It's something magical and the fans like it. I told Toni, 'Okay, you want to try to copy Witchhunter's drumming but in a more accurate way?' It was a combination of Witchhunter of how he played the toms and the rolls, but now with more precision. It was really funny because Witchhunter was one of my favorite drummers. We didn't want to change anything when we covered the songs. We wanted to keep the spirit and the magic of the old recordings but more accurately with two guitars."
Blabbermouth: You are right: Witchhunter's drumming was vital to those albums. It made them more about feeling than perfection.
Thomas: "Yeah, but it was chaotic sometimes. When I talk to black metal fans from Scandinavia, they say, ''Obsessed By Cruelty' is the best. It's so chaotic, but we love it!' If you're going to play the album perfectly, you lose something. The magic is gone. When we listened to all the albums and chose the songs, it took a lot of time. I had to re-learn these, too."
Blabbermouth: Did you have any flashbacks to the 1990s when doing songs from "Get What You Deserve" or "Masquerade In Blood"? SODOM wasn't immune to the downturn in thrash at the time.
Thomas: "I know a lot of bands changed because they had too much pressure from record companies. We never [changed]. We always told the record company, 'We're going to make the music. You're going to bring it out.' When we go back to 'Tapping the Vein', Andy Brings [guitar] came into the band. He was so powerful; he had so many ideas. Looking back, all the '90s albums like 'Masquerade In Blood' or 'Til Death Do Us Unite' or 'Get What You Deserve', which is our heaviest album — SODOM is the only band that didn't change. KREATOR changed, even SLAYER changed. Record sales were going to be less and they wanted to sell more copies. That is the secret of SODOM — we never change. We love the music we do. It didn't matter if it was a good-selling album or not. I made my money from shows, not records. In 2000, people talked about 'Thrash is coming back.' We've always been there. Okay, there were some lineup changes. Even DESTRUCTION changed their singer, but nothing changed as long as I was the singer and bass player."
Blabbermouth: You're forever grouped with KREATOR, DESTRUCTION and now TANKARD in the "German Big Four". How does it sit with you after all these years?
Thomas: "I love DESTRUCTION. [Bassist/vocalist] Schmier is a good friend of mine. They have a different style of music. DESTRUCTION is more thrash metal than SODOM; we have more black metal or heavy metal influences. I'm so proud of them. They did it. They created their own style. They have the perfect singer in the band. We always talk about the [German] 'Big Four' and touring together, but it's hard to do. I think [KREATOR frontman] Mille [Petrozza] is not interested in doing it. We played the Mexico Metal Fest last month, the 'Big Four', with HELLHAMMER and GRAVE DIGGER and I talked to Schmier, we had a beer with [TANKARD frontman] Gerre [Andreas Geremia], but I didn't see Mille. He came on stage and went back to the hotel. He doesn't want to spend any time with us. I don't know why. Maybe he's living on a different planet. I don't think this tour will ever happen."
Blabbermouth: You've always been friendly with Mille, right?
Thomas: "We're friends, but I'm good friends with Schmier. But Mille…it's different. He's not more in the scene. I never see him when we go into any metal bar here in Essen. It's completely different. We'll need to talk about the 'Big Three' touring. It doesn't have to be a tour. All the bands have a packed schedule touring, but we can do a big show. This package is good for three, four or five thousand people."
Blabbermouth: You've had a lot of issues coming to America recently. What's the approach in actually making it over here now?
Thomas: "I met a lot of people from America at the Mexico Metal Fest and they ask, 'Do you hate America? You never come.' It's not my issue; it's not my fault. My bags are packed. We want to go. We just need to find a serious promoter who will have us. That is the thing with the last time we were supposed to play at the Maryland Deathfest [in 2015]. We came to the embassy with all the sheets. We got the visa stuff ready and one sheet was missing. He said, 'One sheet is missing. Go home.' Then they had the idea that we go as tourists. I can't. Maybe there is a SODOM fan at the border and he asks me what I'm doing here. I also want to play my own guitar. I know it's expensive. I think it's a thousand dollars for each person to get a visa and a working license. When we tour America, we will sell out everywhere. We need a promoter who will help. We need a little equipment, like a backline and a nightliner. What is the deal? All the American bands tour in Germany all the time and they get everything. We need more support in America. We play South America all the time; we played Russia a few years ago. We play worldwide. A good friend of mine lives in Las Vegas. He's trying to get us on the Psycho Las Vegas festival. We got in touch with this guy and maybe we can book some smaller shows around the festival. But if you're going to play a festival, the promoter says, 'You're going to play the festival and then you go home.' I want to come over. The time is right. I can't remember the last time we were there. It was a short tour with FINNTROLL [in 2006]. We played in New York and Los Angeles. I'm waiting here."
Blabbermouth: SODOM has made a career out of writing songs about war and now there is one happening fairly close to you. What's your take on what's going on in Ukraine?
Thomas: "There is no justification for [Russian Federation president Vladimir] Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine deserves our full support. But we all fell for Putin. We all did business with him that served our well-being. Blinded by economic interests, we failed to see its true character. But you have to try to see the connections that go back decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the eastward enlargement of the E.U. and the expansion of NATO are probably reasons for his unforgivable actions. Ultimately, war will not solve the problems. War never leads to a better turn. We must not make the mistake of transforming the aggression of a single man and his helpers into an entire people and residents. On behalf of my Russian and Ukrainian friends, I hope for a diplomatic solution and a fresh start for a better and peaceful world. We must finally stop dividing the world into good and bad, right and left, or rich and poor. We are all entitled to a carefree and future-oriented life."