“The Story of Pagan Altar” Reveals The Legendary Band’s Evolution (Interview + Early Album Stream)
Pagan Altar's long and fraught path was one that would likely surprise many modern fans to whom they were introduced right away as doom metal legends. Before the band’s mighty re-recordings showcased the songs they’d written in the 1970s and 1980s, and before they became a band to brag about having seen to your distraught friends, Pagan Altar was a quirky and obscure British father-and-son-led group who went through lineups like "chips" and struggled to stay solid enough to get down a high-quality studio recording.
Fortunately for super-fans of the band, lineup instability means that a young band has to find a way to quickly demo songs for new members. Throughout the long years before albums The Time Lord and Volume One and Judgement of the Dead were properly released, Pagan Altar was recording rehearsal demos themselves for the benefit of future members. In collaboration with their label Temple of Mystery, the band is releasing an anthology of archival recordings going as far back as 1976 (under the name Liquid Gas at the time) showcasing the many periods that these doomsters would go through before becoming the titans they’re recognized as today.
Many anthologies in this vein are pointless cash-grabs filled with recordings that never should have seen the light of day, often with poor documentation and presentation that leaves something to be desired. This was never a fear coming from Temple of Mystery, and much of the information about the release that I could write about is extensively documented in The Story of Pagan Altar's gorgeous layout itself. There is a clear timeline with band pictures, extensive liner notes courtesy of Smoulder’s Sarah Kitteringham, and all of it circles around what is clearly a lovingly curated selection of the band's best songs from the dark years without proper studio releases. There's something for all fans ranging from brand "new" previously unreleased tracks to alternate takes of some of the band’s most beloved hits, and all of it is absolutely killer--there are no duds here, and anyone who loves doom metal, heavy metal, or anything mystical and magickal should be excited to dive in.
This is truly an anthology for the ages and a glorious addition to the legend that is Pagan Altar. While waiting for your copy to arrive, make sure to listen to the exclusive full stream of the album and read an interview with guitarist and vocalist Alan Jones below while you do it.
When I was talking to Temple of Mystery labelhead Annick Giroux about the release, she mentioned that there was a lot of material to pick from when putting everything together. Was it difficult for you guys to narrow down what would be included?
Back in the day the band was a bit of a conveyor belt when it came to band members coming and going so we would record rehearsals with a tape recorder in the middle of the room, mainly because we were either having to teach the next musician the songs or having the songs on tape for the next musician to listen to. We would record over a lot of the tapes when a new member was ready to record but I kept a lot of the tapes and had plenty of tapes available although the sound quality on a lot of the tapes over the years had made them inaudible.
I had moved house in 2012 and had downsized, so I had left my old tape recorder at our old house and didn’t think I would ever need it again, but I recently bought a new one to find out what was on the old tapes and see if there was anything worth using. I sent Annick the best ones of the Different bands and she whittled them down.
Why do you think it was so hard in those earlier years of the band to keep a consistent lineup?
It was so easy to get musicians in the late '70s early '80s, you just popped an ad in the Melody Maker or the sounds and you would have a queue wanting to get into the band. The problems normally started when people started getting their own ideas how the band should be run or wanted to be paid, or they were just nutters. We always put everything back into the band and the stage show which cost a fortune. We never took anything out for ourselves and expected everyone else to feel the same (which they didn’t). My dad used to call them Bread Heads.
We were mostly playing in small clubs or rock pubs that really didn’t pay anything because they knew that there were loads of other bands out there looking for anywhere to play. Once we got onto playing the Universities, it did get a bit better but most of the time we would lose money on a gig.
When did you realize that things had changed for the band in terms of the band’s name recognition and success?
The first time we knew that the band had got a following outside of the south east of England was in about 1983 when my dad got a phone call from America at about 3 o’clock in the morning from a magazine called "Whiplash." The guy's name was Sam Kress, who told us that he had done a review of our tape and we had somehow got a following in California. As the weeks went by we got inundated with orders to buy our tapes from all over America plus other magazines were jumping on the bandwagon and wanting interviews. The same thing happened in the '90s when our drummer told us that someone had bought out our tape as an album and was selling it at a ridiculous price. What was worse it had been taken from a TDK D that had been on a daisy chain of tape recorders so you can imagine how that sounded. That was the main reason we bought out what is now our first album. We had the master tape on reel to reel and decided to bring that out to stop people from getting ripped off.
Did anything change for you guys outside of magazine interest and American sales during that first period of non-local attention in the '80s?
No, not really. We were all working and trying to do the band at the same time and didn’t really think of it. We had a little cottage industry going with the tapes that we fitted in when we could.
It was all so far away and it was hard to know who or how many were getting into our music. It is a bit like a DJ on radio who is in a room sitting on his own but broadcasting to millions. We probably had three men and a dog but that is how it felt when we were running our tapes. There was a lot of tape sharing and copying tape to tape in those days so it was impossible to know what was really going on.
Only a couple of songs from each era of the band from outside the Pagan Altar period made it in. Was there enough from any of the other name periods (Liquid Gas, Hydra, Malac's Cross) to have put together a full release?
With Liquid Gas, apart from my dad, we were very young and were playing mainly cover songs. We had only just started to play our own songs and that is what we wanted for this album. With Hydra, I only had one tape of that band and the song we put on the album probably represents the music scene at that time and us making a half hearted attempt to do something in the punk new wave genre. The Malac's Cross songs were songs that me and my dad wrote either for the band or were originally Pagan Altar songs. All the songs in some way have a connection with Pagan Altar. Annick wanted the album a certain length so we picked a couple of songs from each era.
If play-length limitation was a lot of the reason for how the album track selection went, does that mean there might someday be a Story of Pagan Altar, Part 2 album?
I think this album pretty much covers everything, and I would not really want to do a Story of Pagan Altar Two, but who knows. After my dad passed away, I didn’t even want to listen to The Room of Shadows, let alone finish it, so I will leave that one up in the air... but I don’t think it is necessary to do another one.
Prior to starting to get it put together, when’s the last time you’d listened to these old demos?
Well, I haven’t had a tape recorder until recently but in the past before I moved I may have put some of them on just to see how the songs have improved since we originally did them. I certainly would have played them differently now with more experience.
Do you have any plans to slot any of these into a future setlist to play them the way you think they should be?
We did play "Walking in the Dark" for a while, and some songs are already in our sets, but I doubt if we will play any of the early versions of our songs. This album is more of a look at how the band has improved over the years.
Despite mention in the CD booklet of other band names and lineups that you guys operated under, such as XYZ and Creamer, only the stuff from Pagan Altar, Liquid Gas, Hydra, and Malac's Cross made it to the CD. Was there just nothing worth sharing from the other periods, a lack of recordings, or something else?
XYZ and Creamer were bands I joined, and although I co-wrote some of the songs with them, they had no connection with Pagan Altar so we didn't feel that it was relevant to this album even though they were very good bands in their own right. I also co-wrote with my sister Jen on most of the Malac's Cross songs, but also most songs that were recorded were not connected to Pagan Altar.
Have XYZ and Creamer ever had properly released music? Will you ever separate from this album, put out music from either?
No, both bands were doing everything by themselves although with XYZ we did get some management later who took us into the Enid's studio in Oxford to do a good quality demo to get record company interest, but as usual it all went tits up.
I would not bring any of the music out because I was not a founding member of either band and although I did co write some of the music I don’t feel it is enough for me to do that.
To circle back to Malac's Cross, had you ever written with your sister prior to that, and did you ever do it again afterwards?
I didn't even know my sister could sing before she joined the band. The band itself had been going for a few years before under different names and as usual quite a few different lineups.
We had some songs together that my dad had written the lyrics for, a couple of Pagan Altar songs in which I had changed the music but kept the lyrics, and a couple of Pagan Altar songs. We did do quite a good cover of Rainbow's "Stargazer."
Before Jen (my sister) joined, we were having trouble finding a singer, and my sister said she would have a go. Not only could she sing, she could also write lyrics which really kick started the band's writing.
After Malac's Cross ended, we did write a few things together, but not much. By then my sister had had a baby and had no more time, and I had joined Creamer.
You mentioned cover songs a couple times as being part of different iterations of the band. Why did Pagan Altar never release any?
I think there are few covers that are better than the original, and once we started writing our own songs we felt there wasn’t any need to do any more covers. We did drop in "Paranoid" or "Black Night" on occasions live, and even "You Really Got Me," but never all together.
The Story of Pagan Altar releases December 20th on Temple of Mystery Records.