Interview: Steve Ramsey (Satan)
No one could have predicted the success of Satan’s last release, Life Sentence. Old bands reuniting for shows and a new record is practically commonplace these days, but nobody could have anticipated just how good Satan’s attempt would end up being. In a rare story of a band being justly rewarded for their efforts, the album ended up on many online year-end lists and sparked a new wave of popularity for the older act.
Life Sentence was my first exposure to Satan. Call me a poser if you’d like, but it’s the truth. I fell in love with that album and when I saw a vintage copy of their first record, Court in the Act, at Amoeba Records, I had to buy it. I blasted the hell out of that LP as I spent late nights studying in my tiny apartment, bothering both roommates and neighbors with some of the fastest NWOBHM ever recorded.
I finally got to see Satan live last October in San Francisco. The show, packed with attendees spanning over three decades of fandom, was one of my favorite experiences of the year. Desperate to interview the band, but lacking in official press contacts, I brazenly reached out to Satan’s old penpals from back in the day, hoping that they were in touch with the boys from Newcastle. Somehow, that strategy nearly worked and I found myself scheduled to chat with them that night. I arrived at the venue, Elbo Room in the Mission district of SF, and walked inside the loud, chaotic and fully packed bar. It wasn’t long before I realized that the interview would not happen as planned. A bit of patience paid off, and two months later I was given the chance to chat with guitarist Steve Ramsey via Skype about that tour, his early days learning how to play ‘70s Priest songs and what the future holds for the rejuvenated Satan.
The first thing I want to talk about is the tour you all just did on the West Coast. I went to the San Francisco show, it was sold out and I had an amazing time. What did you think?
A few of the shows were sold out, it was beyond what we imagined. It was brilliant. The other special shows were LA and Chicago, they were just fantastic. We’re sure to be coming back and doing it again.
You had some very old friends in attendance at the SF show.
Brian Lew, Tom Christie, they were all there. Yeah, it was fantastic. We got to see people that we corresponded with in the past, it was just great. Fantastic gig.
When do you think you guys might come back?
We’re not sure. Our next year’s plan… we’re about to go into the studio and start working on the new album that we hope to have finished by the end of January. We’re looking at a release around May. The thing we haven’t done so far is a European tour, we’ve only been playing festivals. We’ve done most of the big ones, but we really feel like we need to get out there and do a European tour. We’re looking into the possibility of coming into the States during the summer, but I’m not sure if it’ll be next year or the year after. We have a South American tour in May, which should coincide with the release of the album. We’re looking at October to do a European tour.
About the new album—there was a chronology going on in the artwork of the other records with the judge character going through the various stages of a trial. How will that continue with the new album?
I’m not sure, we might navigate off that path for the new album. We got some ideas for titles and stuff and we’re just going to send them to the ideas to the artist, Eliran Kantor, and see what he comes up with. It might be a slight departure. The judge will definitely be involved, that’s going to be our theme. Whether [the artwork] has sort of judicial theme, I’m not sure.
Injustice has been a theme in Satan’s songs since the very beginning. It’s almost something you can associate with the band as a whole.
The lyrics we write about are kind of historical and are kind of about all the injustice in the world. Even current affairs, we’re looking at stuff like that for the new album as well, and we did a little bit on the last album too. It’s basically about all the injustices that happen in the world, which we see as the evil thing. That’s all epitomized by the name of the band, the judge and everything. That’s how we’re looking at it.
You mentioned the name of the band being related to that theme of injustice. Was that the motive behind naming the band Satan all those years ago, when you were 18-19?
Oh no, all that was on our mind was that we thought that it was a really cool name for a metal band! [Laughs] After that, we realized that by calling ourselves Satan, we were opening ourselves up to a lot of criticism and people asking us if we were all Satanists and if we were death metal or black metal and burning churches and all that shit. We had to come up with a reason why we were called Satan, and the reason is that we’re trying to epitomize the all the evil in the world through our songs about injustice. That’s the tenuous link between Satan and the judge and everything else. [Laughs]
Life Sentence did so well in the press. I think it surprised a lot of people, I certainly didn’t expect a new album by a NWOBHM band to generate so much acclaim. What do you think made that happen?
It surprised us, the reaction to the album. We knew straight away when we got back together that we had the same spark that we had in the ‘80s. We’ve been around for a long time and we’ve seen a lot of old bands come back, and a lot of them are good, but we thought that we really got what we had back then. As soon as we went back into the studio, we knew that. It wasn’t a surprise to us that people liked it, it was how much they liked it, you know?
There’s youthful energy on Life Sentence that a lot of older bands that record new albums fail to capture.
We always had this thing, especially when we were younger, that we would write a piece of music and play it as fast as we could. [laughs] We’d get a bit carried away in rehearsal and especially live, as you can hear on the new live album. You’ll notice that some of the songs are a bit quicker than they are on the original album. That sort of energy, we let it go. We don’t try to hold it back. We try to put it into the music, and I think that’s what people love about it. When we play together, we still got that kind of crazy thing like we’re just kids. That energy and sort of aggression, that adrenaline comes through when we’re playing.
It always seemed to me that you and Russ Tippins were an underrated guitar team back in the day. I think Life Sentence and the recent shows really brought that to light.
I would’ve always put Russ in my top ten guitarists of all time. I think it was always a real shame that nobody noticed how great he was. Together we’re great, but as a soloist, instrumentalist and a guitarist, Russ is fantastic. I like it now that he’s getting some of that acclaim.
One of my favorite memories from that show in San Francisco was when you and Russ locked heads during “Oppression” and moved across the stage while still playing the dual harmony part.
Yeah, we used to a lot of that stuff during the ‘80s and it’s sort of coming back to us now. The dual harmonies were of course a big feature with Blind Fury and Pariah and everything else too. That’s the main thing that we have. We started off like everyone else, listening to punk and shit like that. We could play it easy. When we started getting into bands like Judas Priest with the twin guitars, we decided that was where we wanted to go. We wanted to have the melody of Thin Lizzy and the power of Priest, that kind of comes across in our music.
Judas Priest has always been an interesting band to me. They found success in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal era, but were making records for 7 or 8 years before that.
All the Judas Priest [material] we liked was in the ‘70s. None of us liked much of the stuff they did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, barring a couple great tracks on some albums. The main body of material that they did in the ‘70s was what influenced us.
Just listen to a song like “Exciter” from Stained Class and you can tell right away.
Of course, Stained Class is my favorite Priest album. Me and Russ sat and learned the whole of Unleashed in the East from the first track to the last track and we could play the whole thing together. I was KK Downing and he was Glenn Tipton! [Laughs]
This one’s a more random question—Court in the Act is out of print at the moment. Are there any plans to get it back in the stores and all that?
We’ve had a lot of interest in it being re-released and a lot of smaller companies asking if they could get a license for it. It’s currently owned by Warner Bros., who bought the rights to it from Roadrunner. We’ve been trying to get it from them to do some kind of deal where we can get it licensed for different territories. I think because of the success we’ve had in the states with Life Sentence and this year, they’re going to release it themselves.
Are you guys going to see any of that money though?
Yeah, but we’re still under that shit contract that we signed with Roadrunner. [Laughs] We won’t be seeing very much of it! We cleared the loans and stuff so we’ll make a little bit of money on it, but it depends on how much it sells. The climate nowadays for selling records is not so good you know. I hope we get something! [Laughs] It would be nice to just have it out there for people who want it. We have a lot of young fans now that were never able to get a copy of that album. I think they’re going to do a big job of it with the 180-gram vinyl and all that shit. It’s a nice thing to have for that record.
I know in the really early days, Satan actually used to play some Blitzkrieg songs.
We used to play the popular one, what do you call it… “Blitzkrieg”? That was one of our favorite songs when we were kids and we all went to see Blitzkrieg play in Newcastle when we were 15, 16. I remember standing in front of the stage in front of Brian [Ross, vocals] thinking, “Man, how great is he?” Then he ended up in our band. [Laughs]
I guess Brian was kind of an elder member of that scene, huh?
Yeah, we really looked up to him along with a few other bands at the time when we were younger. We started getting into some early Def Leppard, Angel Witch, Diamond Head, all those bands. Any time any band like that came to Newcastle, we were there.
Court in the Act came out in 1983, that was near the tail end of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
It was. We sort of caught on to it a little later, we were younger than everyone else. We really started writing and playing together in the ‘80s—’81, ’82. When the album came out, that thing was nearly over.
Do you think that Satan wasn’t nearly as recognized as some of the other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands because the album came out so late in that era?
I don’t know, the problem we had in the press was that it didn’t sound like everyone else. I don’t know whether releasing it earlier would have helped anyway, they couldn’t pigeonhole us with the other bands. They said we didn’t sound like the other New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, they said it was different to the norm. I think a lot of the journalists thought we didn’t sound like everybody else at that time. I don’t think it would have made a difference even if we released it a couple years earlier.
I guess what you’re saying makes sense. You look at songs like “Break Free” or “Trial by Fire” and they’re a lot quicker than what a lot of your contemporaries were doing.
We were verging on sort of speed metal, and there weren’t very many bands doing that sort of stuff at the time. Metallica were doing that in the thrash vein, but not like what we were doing it.
I was going to mention Metallica actually. There’s a pretty recent photo of James Hetfield with a Satan patch on his vest.
We actually met them a few times when the whole band came down to London. I remember especially one time when they came over to do some press for the second album. They brought us a copy of it. Our singer at the time was Lou Taylor and we were all sitting in Lou’s house with Lars and James, listening to the new Metallica album before it was even released. We became good friends with them, Russ was good friends with James for a while. We sort of lost touch because they became too big, you know? I remember me and Russ trying to meet them later on. They were playing some shows in Holland, this must have been around their third or fourth album, the mid-‘80s. They were playing a show in Holland and we were trying to get backstage to meet the guys and we couldn’t get past security! [Laughs] They became distant friends that we couldn’t get in touch with anymore.
During the ‘90s, Satan, Blind Fury, Pariah, whatever you want to call it, was more or less defunct. You had Skyclad with Graeme [English, bass] during that time, but did you stay in touch with Russ, Sean [Taylor, drums] and Brian?
Of course. Every time I made a Skyclad album, Russ was one of the first people to get a copy of it. He was kind of a little bit of a fan of it, he likes a lot of the stuff. Sean was actually living in San Francisco during a lot of the ‘90s. We’d bump into Brian every now and again, but we didn’t see him regularly. With Russ though, me and him went to school together and that’s where we formed Satan, so we’ve always been in touch. We all know each other’s families, that’s always been something we’ve had together. Russ knew what we were doing and I knew what Russ was doing.
Satan finally did reunite officially at Wacken though.
Yeah, at Wacken we got together and used Phil Brewis, the drummer out of Blitzkrieg at the time. It was enjoyable, we learned the stuff and did the show, but had no intention of doing anything without Sean after that. It wasn’t the same, it didn’t feel the same. We’d do Wacken, a big festival so people would get to see us, and that’d be the end. We booked one other show and it was the Keep it True festival. We were due to play that festival with the same lineup as Wacken with Phil playing the drums. At the end of a Skyclad tour, Graeme had an accident and split his head open and we had to cancel the show. From that day on, Oliver, who runs the Keep it True festival, hustled us for about 5 years. “Are you going to play the festival?” “No.” “Are you going to play the festival?” “No.” [Laughs]
Eventually, Sean got in touch with us and said, “I think I can play the stuff again.” I didn’t find out until later, but Sean had a car accident and damaged one of his ankles. I didn’t realize until we played Sweden Rock, so this is like after we recorded the album and everything, I didn’t realize that he re-learned how to play the bass drum on his other leg. We did Sweden Rock and he had two bass drums and we didn’t have our own sound guy. All we could hear was feedback through the whole of the first song. They were saying that he wasn’t playing the bass drum, but they didn’t realize that he was playing the lead bass drum with his left foot, even though he was set up on a right-handed kit. I didn’t even know that! [laughs] He had to retrain himself to play all that, and it’s difficult to play our stuff. He had to learn to do it on the opposite side of his body, and it was crazy.
You’re all a bit older and have full lives outside of metal now. How did your families react when you guys got the ball rolling for Satan in such a big way?
Ah, everyone loved it. It was great. It was no problem, everyone thought it was great. Everyone knew that we should have gotten a lot further than we did back then on the first time. [Now] it was our time to have that experience. We’re sort of lucky to do all the things that we wanted to when we were are kids, to do that now. It’s so fantastic after thinking that it would never happen. We sort of gave up that idea back then, but we all came back together, exactly the same band, and we go out and kill the world. We’ve been to Japan, South America, Scandinavia, everywhere in Europe, it’s just crazy.
I think a big part of that is… let’s pretend that Suspended Sentence and the Blind Fury and Pariah albums are separate things. This lineup of Satan only has two full records, but they’re both indispensable. The band that recorded Court in the Act never made a bad album.
Yeah, that’s true. Most bands get big on their third album, and we’re only doing that now! You never know, maybe we’ll be the next Metallica with the next album. [laughs]
Regarding those other albums though, I did notice that Satan doesn’t perform any songs from those records.
No, we keep the whole thing separate all together. We did reform Pariah back in the late ‘90s and we had Alan Hunter singing. We did the album that we had already written we were dropped from the label back in 1990. We actually went in the studio and recorded that, paid with our own money and played Wacken with Alan singing but again, it was just sort of an unfinished business kind of thing. We didn’t intend to do anything after that. Now all the festivals are asking us to reform Pariah and do that as well! [Laughs] It’s not gonna happen you know. Those bands were basically Satan with a different singer. We took a slightly different direction with the music, especially on the Blind Fury album.
Suspended Sentence was released under the Satan name though.
Yeah, we went back to Satan and then we got all the same shit that we got in the first place. We did a tour with Running Wild in Germany and we had Christian protesters showing up outside the venues, saying “Don’t go watch the devil,” and all this crap. Then we got sick of that again and changed our name, hoping we’d get a new lease on life. It kind of did for a little bit, but then the record company dropped us. We were doing 25,000 records in Europe. Nowadays it would be a reasonable amount, it would be quite good, but at the time they cut everyone under 30,000 from the label in a sort of ruthless, get rid of the chaff move.
If you sold 25,000 records now, it would be a success. That said, I think that the internet, with all the streaming and downloading, really helped Life Sentence in a huge way. It was easier for people to give those songs a fair chance.
It’s funny in our careers, because we’ve suffered because of the internet and also been given some success too. In the ‘90s, I used to make a living from being in Skyclad. When we got into the ‘00s, it all finished and that’s why Martin [Walkyier, ex-Skyclad vocalist] left the band. The money dried up. The internet sort of killed us off a little bit with Skyclad, but it rejuvenated Satan. I can’t say that it’s been a bad thing. [Laughs]
I had no idea that’s what happened with Martin and Skyclad.
Yeah, we were running along kind of nicely but then sales started dropping and dropping due to downloads. We were going out and doing the same amount of touring, but selling no records. Everyone had the album, the crowds were singing the songs but nobody had bought a copy of the album! You had bands like Metallica and all the big bands saying that they weren’t selling as many records but for the little guys like us, it basically cut off our living, our existence. It was time to get a job! [Laughs]
That’s one of the most direct stories I have ever heard of a band suffering because of piracy.
It basically finished the band, because that’s why Martin left. You can give a hundred other reasons, but that was why. Me and him had a good wage that we were living on, and all of a sudden it was cut from underneath us because the sales weren’t there anymore. We weren’t any less popular, but we weren’t selling the records.
Has the internet positively pushed Satan over that income line though? Can you make a living wage from that band in light of the success that Life Sentence has had?
Oh no way. We’re all working, we’ve all got jobs. That’s the problem with touring now. I’m a teacher, so all the tours coincide around school holidays. That’s why I’d really like to go out in the summer because I’ve got 6 weeks off then.
If you don’t mind me asking, what do you teach?
I teach music, I’m called a visiting music teacher. I teach guitar up to grade 8, from the very bottom to the top. I also do workshops, like a rock school for bands. I do djembe drumming, samba drumming, all sorts of stuff. Puppet shows for little kids. [Laughs]
Do you ever have students that know about Satan or Skyclad?
Yeah, and sometimes it’s been really weird. There’s one school that I teach out of, the guy brought me some Skyclad and asked me how to play it and he didn’t know that I was in the band! [Laughs] I said, “Look, that’s me! The one with the long hair.” Now I have short hair and I feel like the odd one out in Satan. [Laughs] He didn’t recognize me at all. “Look, that’s me!” “No!” He was a big fan of the band. Great things like that are just fantastic.