||INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ASTLEY OF XENTRIX
Johnny Main: Photos by Carlan Braid.
After the success of their short UK tour in December, UK thrash Metal legends Xentrix are about the hit the road once again as support for American thrashers Overkill in what promises to be an unforgettable night. I caught up with Xentrix main man Chris Astley for a chat ahead of the tour.
As we sit down, it's Chris who breaks the interview convention by grilling me about what I know about the band instead of myself asking the questions. I explain to him that I first heard of the band after a friend lent me a copy of the bands 1990 album 'For Whose Advantage' on vinyl and then I caught the video of the band's cover of 'Ghostbusters' on ITV's 'Noisy Mothers' TV show (or was it still called 'The Power Hour' at that point, I can't really remember) which was hosted by Metal legend 'Krusher' Joule.
Chris laughs as I mention 'Ghostbusters' telling me that they still have to play the song in their set as a lot of people discovered the band through this rather unorthodox cover.
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I mention to Chris that I've waited twenty years to see the band live and then end up seeing them twice in six months to which he tells me "It's a bit weird doing this after so long!"
Enquiring the reason why he left the band in the mid-1990s Chris tells me: "In that period if you weren't Nirvana or House music... y'know, there was no Metal music and all the Metal clubs had shut down. At that period we'd just recorded our third album ('For Whose Advantage') which hadn't really done very much and people were doing all sorts of (musically) weird things, y'know.
"Metallica were doing odd stuff and Testament were doing odd stuff and then we did the 'Kin' album which was a bit odd too, but there were no gigs anymore, there was no Donington anymore and it was that period when Metal music died. I just thought I've been dong this for seven or eight years of my life, y'know, just playing Metal and don't get me wrong, it was hard to rip myself away but there just seemed to be no point - and there wasn't (laughs)!"
I mention that there's a marked change in the sound of the 'For Who Advantage' album and the bands follow up, 'Kin', so was this a conscious thing? "We just tried to do something different and a lot of people have always said to us 'Yeah, you're just trying to be Metallica', but we weren't!
"Once we got together in the rehearsal studio we just played what we liked to play and we've always done that - looking at 'Kin' now, it was just a reflection of the way we were feeling at the time, y'know? The songs were better but it's not helped that the production was a bit ropey so it all sounds a bit funny but we thought let's not stick by the rules and try to something a bit different. It was that time when we thought let's not stick to the rules here.
"Y'see, a funny thing was happening in Metal and we thought there were some bands who'd released material that we considered to be funny sounding albums. When Pantera first came out there was really just that bass, drums and guitary sound and everyone thought 'What's going on - that's just really weird!' and then that sound became the standard so we thought we're not going to set any standards ourselves, but let's just do what we think sounds good for those songs and try and make them a bit more grown up, because that's what we wanted to do, y'know."
In the early 1990s Xentrix were labeled by the music press as Britains answer to Metallica so did the band get annoyed at the label? "Not really. The fact was that I use a guitar the same shape as James (Hetfield), but that's it, y'know. If you play Metal and you play Metallica and Xentrix tracks, there's no way that Metallica would write a Xentrix song! There's just no way! It wouldn't sound like Metallica, y'know?
"There are a lot more Metallica type bands than us but because I play an Explorer - incidentally, I was playing an Explorer when James was still playing Flying Vs (laughs) but it made it that much worse because I kind of stood like him and played the same shaped guitar and that's what people see.
"You and I were speaking about Airbourne earlier weren't we? Y'know, These days you can virtually be a copy of another band. Avenged Sevenfold, y'know, talking about sounding like Metallica or Iron Maiden or Guns N' Roses but no-one bats an eyelid or says anything anymore. I think it irritated us a little at the time but not that much.
"We were doing what we were doing (and) we couldn't change what we're doing, y'know. Do we change the songs and should I use a different shaped guitar? There were times when it bothered us, I think, but at the end of the day, I don't think it made any difference. At the time, we always felt that we were like the underdogs because we never really got to be that successful. We nearly achieved what we wanted but then it didn't quite happen."
When asked why the band never reached the heights in their heyday Chris explains: "If you look at bands like Forbidden, Testament and Metallica which were and still are big bands, and everybody goes on about the British thrash scene but we were never really part of that scene. We were part of the global thrash scene along with Metallica, Testament, Megadeth, Anthrax and all that kind of stuff but we were a few years behind them and kind of missed the boat. We still saw ourselves as part of that, but they were ahead of us.
"The other thing is that you could say that we just weren't good enough to make it but I've always thought that if you're an American band you put your first album out and then you tour America for nine months, then you come to Europe before going to Japan and Australia and you're on tour for, like, a year and a half - on the back of your first album! If you're a British band, you might get a couple of dates in Germany and that's your lot! There's no way you're going to the States - especially not twenty five years ago. It just isn't going to happen. We were never going to have the opportunity to get the kind of exposure all the other bands had. We felt there was no way of winning in that situation.
"When we asked why it was like that we were told that when you're an American band you have a large local footprint if you like, so if you're signed to Roadrunner America you're going to sell enough records to fund your trip round the world. If you're signed to Roadrunner UK, you can't sell enough records to pay for a trip to London and back (laughs) and that was a kind of a mis-match between us and those bands - the opportunities that we had. We still had some pretty good opportunities, though (laughs). Playing places like Hammersmith with bands like Testament and Sepultura - great times."
I ask what was it was like walking onto the stage at Hammersmith Odeon in front of a sold out audience to which Chris tells me: "It was amazing - just amazing. It still gives me shivers down the spine when I think about it! The thing about it too is that when we played there with Testament, they were my favourite band of all time and they were all at the side of the stage watching us play - just completely mind-blowing! That was just the one gig we played with them but we would have loved to have done a proper tour with them."
So what happened after the 'Kin' album and what made him decide to leave the band? "I didn't love Metal any less and I didn't love these knob heads (gesturing towards the rest of the band) any less either (laughs) but there was no point. We were at the point where we were needing to be successful and make money and progress but the whole thing of the Metal scene falling on its arse, it became obvious it wasn't going to happen (for us).
"There were no gigs to play and there was no venues to play anymore so it was obvious it wasn't going to happen and when you've been struggling and surviving for so many years and you're beginning to grow into a bigger band but there's a point when you have to go 'Well, what's the point?' and I'd just had enough."
I mention that there was a statement put out saying Chris would never tour with Xentrix again, so what changed his mind? "I'm good at saying 'never again' (laughs), but I meant that at the time though. Of course, this lot went on and kind of did another Xentrix album without me, which I was quite jealous of because I really like that album. To me, the best Xentrix album is that one that I'm not on! (laughs).
"I was a bit jealous because they were still doing it and I couldn't y'know what I mean. For me it was 'never again' and I didn't play guitar or sing or anything for ages. Originally we got back together for Stan's birthday, I think, when he was thirty and as a one-off thing where I said 'never again' again.
"Then about six or seven years ago we had the chance to so some one-off dates with Testament and we got back together for that. We got together and did Preston, Bradford and another one (pauses) Barrow which were warm ups for this Testament thing but then Testament moved the gigs back a month and we couldn't do it, so at that point I said to myself, 'right - that's it, it's never happening again' and I never played the guitar or sung since then.
"Lots of things changed over time to bands we know, though, with Facebook and things like. People like (Nottingham Thrash band) Sabbat, who were the first ever band we toured with actually, and they were back together doing amazing stuff and doing these European festivals where you take your guitars, jump on a plane play a massive festival and then come home again the following day. We thought that sounded good and if they can do it, so can we and that's the thought that started it off.
"What really made it happen for me was when I spoke to Mark Palmer (General Manager at Roadrunner UK) and I told him that I wanted to go to the Wacken Festival but he said it was already sold out and the only way I could go is if we played at it and I laughed at him and said 'right we're getting back together' (laughs).
"Once I said that, I thought that we really should do this because (as a band) we're all still talking so I made a few phone calls and said to the rest of them 'if we're going to do this, we need to do it now' because we're not getting any younger and the time is right. Y'know, I'm forty five now and to be doing what we're doing - that is old! But right from the minute we announced we were going to do it, the level of interest was so massive, we couldn't believe it - we just couldn't believe it!
"We spoke to Sharon Richardson of Factory Music who we knew through Hellfighter which Stan and Dennis formed after Xentrix along with the singer who joined after I left. They weren't really a thrash Metal band, just really heavy Metal but they had some involvement with Sharon and Factory Music so when we got back together, we called Sharon and she said she'd be really interested to get involved.
"Straightaway she said that Kreator were coming across to the UK and would we be interested in supporting them and as soon as that was announced on our newly launched Facebook page - the thing is that we never did the whole band thing with Facebook until then, and before you know it, you have three thousand followers! How did that happen (laughs)?
"As soon as she suggested we play with Kreator and Evile who were also on the bill, we thought 'that'd be good' plus we already knew Evile because the last ever gig we did in 2006 was with Onslaught, and Evile were the first band on so we thought what a great retro-thrash bill with us and Kreator plus Evile but because we were the first band on, we thought there'll be nobody in. A few people kind of wandering in when we're half way through our set maybe, because we were on at kind of six thirty and we really thought there wouldn't be anybody there, y'know.
"When we arrived for the sound check for the first gig in Dublin there was a crowd of people stood outside with Xentrix albums wanting them signed! We just thought it was some enthusiastic people but then the next weird thing to happen was as soon as the doors opened we sold out of merchandise! The guy behind the merchandise desk was going 'Everyone just wants Xentrix shirts!' and they'd all gone, so all of the merchandise we had for those three dates went on the first night!
"We were ready to go on and people were saying 'have you seen it out there? It's half past six and the place is absolutely rammed!' and that was the point where we thought y'know, 'what's happening here?' The minute the lights went down there was a huge roar from the crowd and we thought it was just mad - the whole situation was just crazy!
"We've been asking ourselves the same question ever since that gig - what's happening here? We take twenty years off and when we come back, everyone likes us! (laughs) We don't know what's happening but we're liking it! (laughs).
"There are people turning up to some of our gigs with all of our albums on vinyl but weren't even born when the first one came out! We had one guy turn up at Dublin in December with his 'For Whose Advantage' cassette tape cover for us to sign! (laughs)"
Bringing the conversation to a close, I ask Chris what's next for the band - a new album perhaps? "When we first started we thought 'right, we're just playing songs that are twenty to twenty five years old and we're a cabaret act of ourselves and no-one is interested in hearing new songs because every band that does this, people just end up disappointed. People just want to hear 'For Whose Advantage' or 'Crimes' or 'Balance Of Power' but right from day one we're being asked if we're going to be doing a new album!
"So, it's one of these band things where we're having a bit of fun and then you do some gigs and then you write some songs and then you record those songs and it's just a progression we're going through again and there are loads of ideas bouncing about. We were going to start writing a couple of months ago, but we were too busy trying to teach Kristian (guitarist Kristian Havard) the songs (laughs) so that kind of gone on hold for a bit but that's very much the plan.
"We're quite honest about this that what we want to do is to play big European festivals as opposed to a lot of driving about the UK. What we want to do is to drive to the airport, jump on the plane, get driven from the destination airport to the hotel, play the gig and then come home. That's what we set out to do, but to play the really big gigs, we need something new to release and it's a contrived as that.
"We're going to do it because that's what we need to do to get a place on those big gigs. People ask us why we're not playing Preston or touring here or there but we all have jobs and families and we're not wanting to spend weeks and weeks on a tour bus.
"This is a hobby! As nice as it is that people think we're making a living out of this, we're not. We didn't twenty five years ago and we're not now! It has to pay for itself but it's amazing that four middle aged blokes are still able to get up on stage and do this.
"Quite what happens after the Overkill dates we're not sure but we'll work it out when we get there."
With that we part ways, but I for one wish the band all the success that they surely deserve.
Special thanks to Chris Astley for his time.
You can catch Xentrix live here:
Thursday 13th March - Islington Academy, London (supporting Overkill)
Saturday 15th March - The Academy, Dublin (supporting Overkill)
Sunday 16th March - The Cathouse, Glasgow (supporting Overkill)
Monday 17th March - Sound Control, Manchester (supporting Overkill)
Chris Astley – Guitar/Vocals
Kristian Havard - Guitars
Chris Shires – Bass Guitar
Dennis Gasser – Drums
Official Website: http://www.xentrix.co.uk