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Professions of Midnight: You Can’t Stop Steel, You Can’t Stop “Rebirth by Blasphemy” (Interview)

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With age comes wisdom and a desire to progress toward new horizons [the echoed sound of leather boots hitting a table]. For a musician that means continually mastering your craft resulting in ever more complex and evolved expressions of one’s artistry [a loud snicker and laugh]. Longer songs, more complicated time signatures, philosophical lyrical explorations, and sometimes a full philharmonic orchestra to accompany it all [a beer can cracks open]. Then painstakingly recorded over month long sessions, produced and mixed by god like figures of musical science, and packaged with exquisite art that only hints to the listener the genius at play [burp!]. Such is what… now lies… here… oh for fuck sake! We’re here to talk about goddamn Midnight!

No high-minded ivory tower wankery but instead a heed to the call for lust, filth, and sleaze. To bang your head before the piss-soaked stage of rock-‘n’-roll.

Rest assured, Midnight’s move from Hells Headbangers to Metal Blade Records hasn’t so far changed a single thing about the band on their latest release Rebirth by Blasphemy. It’s still an unholy and rotten mix of NWOBHM spirit, punk swagger, and early black/speed metal hell-raising. Of course, it’s all filtered through the mind of Mr. Midnight himself: Athenar, who never lets genre expectations get in the way of laying down sugary sweet hooks on top of a dirt-crusted assault.

Rebirth by Blasphemy opens with a two-punch combo with “Fucking Speed and Darkness” followed by the anthemic chorus chanter of the title track. Not a single song is skippable for any fans of perpetual ecstasy, not the shaking groove of “Cursed Possessions” or the punk-as-fuck “The Sounds of Hell.” The album concludes appropriately with “You Can Drag Me through Fire” which serves as the final raised fist of defiance against all who wish to burn rock-‘n’-roll at the stake.

So, it was an honor and delight that Athenar picked up the phone while in New York City for the band’s new album listening party (and to open the first ever US shows of Japanese thrash metal vets Sacrifice) to chat with Invisible Oranges. The man was quick-witted and generally straight to the point; he gave us an honest answer at every step. Hopefully he had some fun, in turn, as he recounted life’s changes, tours with legendary bands, and one time he was a wrong move away from irreparably ending his career in Las Vegas.

— Joseph Aprill

What brought about the move to Metal Blade?

It was just time for a change, like when you need a new pair of shoes. I mean there’s no real need for it I guess. Instead of new shoes you could just walk around barefoot. But yeah, just time for a change.

Did they reach out to you?

Yeah, they reached out a couple of years ago actually but at that point my shoes were still fine, so there was no real need to change. Like I said though, coming around this time there were some changes in life that went with it as well. So it was good timing.

Metal Blade is a pretty storied and historical part of heavy metal culture. Is there any special significance to you being a part of the label now?

Yeah, of course! It’s been an important label for me since I was a kid. It wasn’t like it was a business move for me like in weighing up my options or anything. It was more like, “oh fucking cool. Same label as Trouble. If they’re good enough for Trouble than they’re good enough for me.” Another thing too, you get older and then what do you have? It would be cool to see a band of mine have that same record label with the axe dripping with blood off it.

In the press release for Rebirth by Blasphemy you talk about the album as a rebirth and a call to take a chance in making a change, a lot like how you just described the move to Metal Blade. Besides moving to a bigger label what kind of rebirth or change have you recently had that inspired the attitude you’ve described giving this album?

A lot personally. I mean I don’t know if we have the time to get into the deep changes that happened in my life but that’s exactly what it was. I keep my identity hidden so people don’t realize I’m on the back-nine of life. So yeah, shit happens and the older you get more shit happens. So that’s what that statement meant. Let’s take a chance and see what happens.

Furthering on with that in other interviews you mentioned before being in your 40s these days. I’m still in my 30s but I definitely have experienced my body not working exactly like it used to in my 20s, especially after a punishing show or a night of heavy drinking. How often do you think about this for yourself and have you had to change any habits in dealing with getting older?

Yeah, I think about it daily man because that’s all you got. All you have in life is your health. Like you said if you’re feeling it in your 30s then just wait for your 40s. You’re going to feel a whole lot of shit then. You know I’d never tell anyone what to do with their life or how to live it. That’s none of my business but for me it’s just a personal thing of a) I want to wake up in the morning, and b) when I do wake up, I want to feel like I want to do something and not just lie there. I want to feel good when I wake up in the morning, that’s all. Simple things.

Back in the day, how did you decide upon the visual aspect of Midnight especially with being onstage with the hoods, smashing your guitars, and sometimes lighting them on fire?

It all stems from Kiss. I think that’s no secret for any band that has that kind of… of course there were other musical acts doing it before Kiss, but Kiss took it to that huge level and perfected it all. There’s always something that goes along with the music so the visual stuff has to go with it. Simplicity too is important for me. Kiss of course really wasn’t simple except for their name and music but I think for the way we do it simple works. So if I just throw a bag over my head and plop a bullet belt over it, it makes a good image real quick and simple.

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It’s the start of a new decade which has made a lot of the metal journalists and fans in general reflect on what were some of the musical highlights of the last decade. I would absolutely rank Satanic Royalty as one of the best albums of this past decade. So nine years on from when that came out, what are your thoughts about that album today and how it sort of jump started this larger development and exposure for Midnight?

Yeah it’s wild that nine years have passed already since that. It’s hard to believe actually and just kind of flew by. I can only take it as a compliment that people want to listen to any of my music let alone still doing it nine or however many years down the line. Like I said before all you have left is what you put out there. So if the world still exists when I don’t exist and people are still listening to it then that’s even better.

If Setlist.fm is to be believed you easily played your most shows ever this past year at about 62 gigs…

Actually I think it was 72 — 71 or 72, something like that.

Ah, well for a band that for quite a while barely went past a dozen most previous years how has it been adjusting to playing more?

It was something I didn’t want to do for years. Like what I said before about the attitude of “just give it a try,” I just needed a kick in the ass to do it. I thought it went pretty smooth and a lot easier than what I expected. I wasn’t looking forward to it but then once we did it I was like, “fuck man! We did 70-some gigs.” That might not mean shit compared to some bands who are out there eleven months out of the year, so yeah I really applaud them, but I was happy we did 70 some gigs. It’s a balance for sure because there is a point where we can do gigs where it’s not too many or too little. It’s trying to find that sweet spot so people aren’t like, “I’ll just go see them next time.” You gotta make every gig count, you know.

Speaking of touring, you’ve now played with some legendary bands like Kreator and Obituary while most recently you opened for Venom in Europe and Electric Wizard in the states. You ever get surreal feelings playing and sharing the road with bands you maybe fell in love with in your youth?

Yeah, totally! I never would have thought on the day I bought Slowly We Rot that I would be in a band and playing gigs with them on their 30th anniversary of that album. So yeah it is surreal. On top of it those guys are totally cool too. As far as being in a band and opening up for those guys they don’t have to do anything except show up and play but they went out of their way to let us use their gear, share their food, use their sound man, and a lot of shit that bands take for granted. They really treated us great so that makes it even better. They could have been total cockheads leaving us to our own simple devices but instead they were really cool to us.

From those bands I mentioned you recently toured with for Venom they’re clearly an influence on Midnight’s music. What do you remember most from when you first heard them?

First hearing them it was for me loving that they actually had songs. I’m not saying the thrash metal back then didn’t have songs but it was a lot of riffs and everything. Venom could hold out a b-chord and just make a song over that and of course Cronos’ vocal delivery is just great. So that’s what really set them apart for me, it’s got hooks but it’s still nasty as fuck. You still can’t play Venom today for someone like a parent or a co-worker and not have them go, “ugh! Can we turn that off?!” [Laughs] I think people are more accepting of something like the current sound, you know like sonically what a current band sounds like. I don’t know what example to give, but any “x” band that puts out modern heavy metal would be more tolerable than putting on Venom’s “Sons of Satan” for a coworker. They’ve got songs and it’s still gritty enough to let someone feel their true grossness.

Midnight has consistently been one of my favorite bands to see live. Almost every show I’ve seen you guys do has been memorable in one way or another. So I wanted to ask you about your memories of two particular gigs. First is from 2016 at Psycho Las Vegas where you played at the pool stage where after lighting your guitars on fire the guitarist and you jumped from the stage, ran through the crowd and jumped into the pool.

Yeah, into the “AIDS pool” as Buck Dharma called it when Blue Öyster Cult played the next night [laughs]. Yeah that was nothing planned. It was hot as fuck if I remember it right. It was Las Vegas after all. After you get done with doing a gig you’re all fucking sweaty then you then see a pool in front of you while you’re holding a flaming guitar it’s just common sense to run toward the water. Put out the fire by jumping into the pool, so it made perfect sense to me.

Someone next to me said there was something about you jumped down and were going to smash the guitars but then someone yelled that there was a propane tank. So that was why you ran to the pool?

[laughs] Yeah, you’re right. I forgot about that till you just said it. So yeah, that would have been very memorable if you want to call it that.

So that was true?

Yeah, I remember this look of terror on the stage manager or whoever the fuck like in slow motion going, “NNNOOOOO!” [Laughs] Of course they had no idea before what was going to happen, and I had no idea what was going on, but yeah, smashing a bass on fire near a propane tank would have been memorable. Though I don’t know if there would have been anyone left to remember it afterwards [laughs].

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The second gig I want to ask about was Beyond the Gates in Bergen, Norway last year. I’ve been to scandinavian metal fests a few times now and the audiences seem to be notoriously stoic…

Reserved.

But when you guys hit maybe the only real moshpit of the week there opened up. Being in a foreign country it made me feel oddly patriotic like, “fuck yeah, that’s how an American band does it.”

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s cool. “American pride, boy!”

Was that a return to Norway or had you not played there before?

Oh yeah we’d played Norway before. We played Oslo twice before but those gigs were quite a few years ago and that was our first time for sure in Bergen. So that was a memorable one as well.

Does that happen for you ever in Scandinavia where no one is moving or do you usually get a reaction from the crowd?

Usually there’s some movement. It’s a back and forth thing usually. Another memorable show was back in April when we played in France. I mean you talk about stoic, boy, it was like these French people were watching a French film dubbed in english with us being the characters. They were just looking at us and smoking cigarettes. It was really fucking bizarre because it wasn’t like anyone left or they were casually mingling. They were all focused, entranced, and enjoying themselves but it was like no movement at all. It was almost comical.

Yeah, not a typical Midnight gig.

But yeah, that’s why you do it live. You don’t have to necessarily mosh and move around but just get whatever you have out of you. Let your freak flag fly.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews about your record collection and the Reaper Metal Productions’ Heavy Metal Cribs YouTube video certainly illustrated that, but I’m curious even if you don’t collect much if you consider yourself a film fan at all?

Not hugely. I do enjoy it but I don’t get as deep into it as much as music. Some people ask, “are you into horror stuff?” and I’m not into anything terribly deep. I mean what are you talking about, what kind of films?

Just that for Invisible Oranges I’ve been doing a column on movies and heavy metal in terms of like “every heavy metal fan should see these movies for one reason or another.” So I’m interested in asking artists what’s a movie that really stuck with them or that they think is totally metal.

Well me being me all my favorite movies have always revolved around music. So of course Trick or Treat was always a favorite since I was a kid. Also speaking earlier of American patriotism for me the most patriotic movie ever made would be “[Combat Tour Live:] The Ultimate Revenge.” Everything always in the end revolves around music for me.

Rebirth by Blasphemy releases tomorrow via Metal Blade Records. Catch Midnight performing in April at the next edition of the Decibel Magazine Metal & Beer Festival in Philadelphia alongside headliners Napalm Death and Mayhem.

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